‘I don’t get it’ doesn’t get us very far


“I don’t get it”

Students often say this, but it’s not very helpful information for us. It could mean:

  • I don’t understand the vocabulary in the reading
  • I don’t understand the concept being explained
  • I don’t have the background knowledge to make sense of this information
  • My answer was wrong, but it still seems right to me

We need to break the “I don’t get it” habit and train our students to ask specific questions instead.  

The problem is, when they say “I don’t get it,” we often assume we know what the problem is. We try to re-explain, but if we’re wrong about their misunderstanding, our help won’t be helpful.

On a recent economics assignment, my students faced this question:

Two goods are likely to be complements if when the price of one of them rises, the…

  • a – Price of the other rises
  • b – Supply of the other rises
  • c – Price of the other falls
  • d – Supply of the other rises
  • e – Demand for the other rises

The “right” answer is that when the price of a good like coffee rises, the demand for a complement like cream will fall. (I’m not drinking as much coffee, so I don’t need as much cream.) When demand for cream falls, its price falls, so a student should answer “c”.

If a student tells me they don’t get it, and I simply explain what I said above, they feel like they “get it” now, and they move on. But what if they got it wrong because they assumed that the question was asking about complements in production, not consumption? (Like beef and leather — two goods that come from the same source.)

One student emailed me last week with this question:

I answered “b” because if the price of one good rises, then suppliers will produce more of it, and they will also produce more of the complement. Why did I get it wrong?

He did “get it” — he just interpreted the question differently than I intended it. He was right, and I could see that once he explain his thought process.

He benefited a lot more from our exchange than he would have if he’d said “I don’t get it” and  I’d just explained the right answer.

Getting every student to pinpoint the source of their misunderstanding is difficult. Sometimes we literally “don’t know what we don’t know”. But rather than jumping in and trying to explain, we teachers should spend more time trying to get kids to explain their thinking — so we can address the right mistake rather than the wrong one. And our students need to move past the standard: “I don’t get it.”