I don’t know

Despite its honesty, the humble phrase “I don’t know” is widely feared.

From the fake-it-til-you-make-it mindset of consultants to the face-saving responses of executives, we puny humans are psychologically conditioned to have all the answers – or at least be seen to.

Of course, demanding all the answers is the premise of summative assessment, especially when it’s in the form of the much maligned multiple-choice quiz. And our test takers respond in kind – whether it’s via “when in doubt, pick C” or by madly selecting the remaining options in a quasi zig-zag pattern as they run out of time.

But that’s precisely the kind of behaviour we don’t want to see on the job! Imagine your doctor wondering if a symptom pertains to the heart, kidney, liver or gall bladder, and feeling content to prescribe you medication for the third one. Or any random one in the 15th minute.

Of course my comparison is extreme for effect, and it may very well be inauthentic; after all, the learned doctor would almost certainly look it up. But I’d like to reiterate that in a typical organisational setting, having all the information we need at our fingertips is a myth.

Moreover, as Schema Theory maintains, an efficient and effective worker quickly retrieves the knowledge they need on a daily basis from the network they’ve embedded in their longterm memory. We can’t have our contact centre staff putting our customers on hold every 5 seconds while they ask their team leader yet another question, or our plumber shrugging his shoulders at every tap or toilet he claps his eyes on until he reads a manual. Of course, these recourses are totally acceptable… if they’re the exception rather than the rule.

And notwithstanding being a notch or two less serious than the life and death scenarios with which doctors deal, it wouldn’t be much fun if your loan or lavatory were the subject of a blind guess.

So yes, we humans can never know it all. And what we don’t know, we can find out. But the more we do know, the better we perform.

Two dice showing double sixes

Thus we don’t want our colleagues gaming their assessments. Randomly guessing a correct answer falsely indicates knowledge they don’t really have, and hence the gap won’t be remediated.

So I propose we normalise “I don’t know” as an answer option.

Particularly if a recursive feedback approach were to be adopted, a candid admission of ignorance motivated by a growth mindset would be much more meaningful than a lucky roll of the dice.

I don’t mean to underestimate the shift in culture that would be necessary to effect such a change, but I contend the benefits would be worth it – both to the organisation and to the individual.

In time, maybe identifying your own knowledge gaps with a view to continuously improving your performance will displace getting it right in the test and wrong on the job.

6 thoughts on “I don’t know

  1. Very interesting thoughts. While an assessment rarely can produce a full gap assessment of user knowledge, having a small percentage attributed to knowing vs not knowing should be a concern when a user guesses the correct answer. Getting feedback that they selected correctly can possibly close the gap a bit, but I like the idea of adding “I don’t know” as an option. If you have implemented this, how often is it actually used? My hesitation would be that users would be unlikely to select even if available, unless the entire format/approach is really thought out and encouraged effectively.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Adam. I haven’t implemented this idea yet, but I am adding “I don’t know” to an assessment-first campaign that I’m working on at the moment. I share your concern that users will be unlikely to select it, at least to begin with, but I’m determined to start somewhere!

  3. I think it probably has a better place in formative than summative assessments (who would ever choose it?). I like the idea of it as something that then shapes the content that’s delivered, but it’s a massive shift requiring the creation of safe psychological space for participants to even consider choosing it as an answer.

  4. A massive shift indeed. Culturally I don’t think many (if any) organisations would be ready for it. Nonetheless, as I mentioned to Adam I’m determined to get the ball rolling and see how it goes. Will anyone choose the IDK option? At this stage, I don’t know :P

  5. LOLOL. Well done. ; )
    If implemented all on its own, maybe not effective – but if implemented in such a way as to encourage or motivate the use, then maybe? (think of the tests that give points for the right answer, 0 points for an “I don’t know” answer, and negative points for an incorrect answer). Maybe appropriate in some settings, not in others. Maybe a less harsh option of “I’m not sure”? Followed by a pop-up with some info that explains the concept without giving the answer directly if they choose it? I think there are ways to make it work depending on the goal of the question/test.

  6. “Maybe appropriate in some settings, not in others” – I agree. A points system is the antithesis of the recursive/IDK approach, but that may be the right model depending on the circumstances.

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