Much of the structure of the school environment teaches us to guess when we don’t know the answer. While this may be a good strategy when taking a multiple choice exam (or “multiple-guess”, as an old professor I was fond of used to say), taken on as a habit it actually hinders the learning process.
This occurred to me recently when I was working with a particular student. When I would ask him a question, by way of response he would often spout off a string of related vocabulary terms, as if he was trying to answer by throwing darts at a mathematical glossary. I realized that this was just conditioning from the school environment, but it wasn’t actually helping him to learn. For one thing, many of the terms he would spout made no sense in the context of the question, so instead of thinking about what the question meant, his mental process was “What words do I know that might work?” For another, he was missing the opportunity to honestly say “I don’t understand”, so that I could ask the question differently. And finally, if he happened to give me the answer I was expecting, I couldn’t be sure whether it was because he actually understood what I was asking or because he had made a lucky guess.
This is the thought process I suggest in place of “guessing” at answers:
1) Think about what the question means. If you don’t understand the question, you can’t give a meaningful answer.
2) If a possible answer comes to mind, ask yourself first if you understand it and if it makes sense in the context of the question. There are few situations in real life when answering a question without being able to provide an explanation will do you much good.
3) If you don’t understand, say so, but try to be specific. Say something like “I don’t understand what ______ means”, or “I don’t understand how ______ relates to ______.”