In February, we gave away one copy of Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know. As part of the giveaway, we asked participants two questions:

How have you prepared to teach a lesson or course in a new or unfamiliar subject area?

What are some strategies you use when you do not know how to answer a student’s question during class?

We received a number of thoughtful answers and, in the spirit of building an online learning community, have compiled them in this post. Thank you for all participants for sharing your experience and expertise with us!


How have you prepared to teach a lesson or course in a new or unfamiliar subject area?

“To prepare for a lesson in an area I’m unfamiliar in I will first try to get as much background information on the topic as I can, whether from textbooks, youtube videos, or lecture slides made by past instructors. I’ll use the lecture slides (or make my own if they’re unavailable) as an outline of the information, and think about the “big picture”– what do I want my students to get out of the lesson? I’ll then fill in the details (i.e., read up on the topic some more), and practice going through the lesson to make sure I have all the information I need and am conveying a coherent message to my students.” –Lyndsie, GTA

“I typically try to bring in a panel of experts. I can give a brief overview but then the students can direct their specific questions to the panelists who are living / working / doing the given topic. I do as much research as I can and gather website links and information sources where students can research more on their own.” –Anonymous

“I have consulted previous instructors. I have looked through related textbooks. I have searched for syllabi at other institutions. I have consulted with the appropriate subject librarian.” –Anonymous

“First, I consult the learning objectives, then I make a concept map. This helps me contextualize the material within the set learning objectives and makes selecting what I need to know easier, while giving me a way to visualize the information so I don’t get lost. That way, I am not working harder, but smarter, and I am certain the students are getting everything they need.” –Anonymous


What are some strategies you use when you do not know how to answer a student’s question during class?

“Firstly, I am honest about not knowing the exact answer, but if I am able, I may provide an educated speculation (and I make it clear to the students that it is speculation, and lay out the reasoning behind what I’m saying based on what I do know). I also invite the students to respond – sometimes they have experience with a topic that I don’t, or have other perspectives to add. Then, if it’s something I think needs further attention, I will look up information outside of class and bring it back to the next meeting for further discussion with my additional evidence. –A GTA, Human Sciences Department

 Ask the class for input: ‘That is a great question! Can anyone in the class offer any thoughts/suggestions?’

Seek clarification: ‘I’m not sure I understand what you are asking. Can you rephrase or explain it a little more?’ ‘I understand your question as asking xxxxx  – Is that correct?’

Simply say I don’t know: ‘That is a great question but I don’t have the answer to it at the moment. Let me investigate and get back to you within xxxx [timeframe].’” –Anonymous

“I will let the student know I don’t have the answer at that time. I will write the question down and research it and post response in discussion board on Canvas.” –Anonymous

“I ask the student to clarify their question. Then we try to talk through the concern based on the assigned readings and understanding of the materials through that point. If that doesn’t work, then I tell the student I will have the correct answer by our next session and will encourage them to keep me accountable.” –B. Mack, GTA, Political Science

“Put it on a parking lot list and then find a resource that can provide the answer and share it with students.” –Anonymous


We invite you to enter our March book giveaway for The Undergraduate Experience by Peter Felton, et. al. Also, please feel free to read previous posts in our “Teacher’s Talk” series about small teaching, intercultural teaching and classroom technology/online teaching.