Friday, 14 December 2012

When to say "I don't know"

With exams on the horizon this has been at the back of my mind recently. Some of our examinations are multiple choice examinations which require you to choose the correct answer from a list of five choices, but I propose that there should be a sixth option for "I don't know". This is not an original thought, many people would argue that negative marking gives you the I don't know option by leaving the answer blank, but then I don't think people should be penalised for making an educated guess either.

I first put some serious thought into this last year during clinical teaching. I had a case of polar opposites in teaching on the same day. In the morning we had a consultant who asked a question and I took a guess at the answer, unfortunately for me it was obvious to the consultant that I had guessed. The consultant reprimanded me, saying that if you don't know the answer to a question then you should, admit it and ask for help. That afternoon we had some very similar teaching from a different consultant and again he posed a question to which I did not know the answer. However, this time I replied with an honest "I don't know" at which point he proceeded to tell me that the least I could do was guess. 

There are merits and flaws in both methods, but I believe that the first consultant was right. I think of it like this, if you were asked to prescribe medication for a particular condition you would not just guess which treatment to use. If you didn't know the answer you would go away and look it up before prescribing. This is an extreme case, but I am sure you would want your doctor to know exactly what he was doing.

This brings me back round to exams. So after doing many practice questions with my housemates and watching them stumble through an answer which they are clearly guessing, I think that sometimes we should just admit we don't know. This presents a problem for some people, especially those in the medical profession. We are often portrayed as (and maybe see ourselves as) infallible geniuses who know the answer to every question, but the truth is that we are just a fallible as anyone else. In medicine particularly we could be doing untold damage to someone's health just to maintain our own ego. 

So what to do when that consultant asks you a difficult question? The answer is unfortunately, "I don't know", take each situation as it comes. One thing is certain though, I don't know is not acceptable the second time you are asked the question. Getting a question wrong should inspire you to go and read about that particular subject so that you learn from your mistakes. 


  1. Nice blog! Although I have to say, why not go for something like 'I don't know but I think it may be...'? :D

  2. You are quite right, somewhere in the middle ground is probably best. It has just shifted too far in the wrong direction, so I thought I would try and push it the other way.


I look forward to hearing your thoughts and will endeavour to get back to you