After being a TA myself for 12 years and having supervised TAs since then, I feel confident in making the following claim:

Every TA will be asked questions they do not know the answer to.

What can I say about these moments to help you?

First, remember the above statement. You are not alone, and being in that situation is a normal part of being a TA. But let’s also explore two kinds of questions in this space:

1 Computer setup problems

Many CS classes use some software package students are expected to (or simply want to) install on their own computers. But computers are complicated and software is incompletely tested and so some of the students run into strange corner-case bugs. So they ask the TA for help.

Theoretically, this is not your job. We hire you to help students learn, not to help troubleshoot installation problems. But in practice, it is: the students need the software to run, and who else are they going to go to? So you’ll get a series of very strange problems that no one has ever trained you to handle, on an operating system you don’t use, with students whose keyboards are set up for a language you don’t speak, and so on.

When this happens, do three things:

  1. Try.

    Do what you know how to do and see if it works. (note that you shouldn’t do anything to a students’ computer without their permission)

  2. Look it up.

    Try web-searches for the text of error messages, or web searches describing what’s going wrong. The student could do this, but they don’t yet know what to expect out of the software so they’ll not be as good at interpreting the results as you hopefully will.

  3. Pass the buck.

    Send the student to someone else. Another TA, another student with a similar set-up who got it to work, the professor; once you run into a brick wall (and you will) get someone with a different set of experiences to have a look.

As an aside, the pass the buck step can go on many times. As faculty, I’ve been step 9 in an 11-step chain from student to the person who finally figured out the problem, passing through TAs and faculty of three courses as well as our department systems staff along the way.

2 Course-topic stumpers

Sometimes you’ll be asked questions you feel you should be able to answer, but don’t know the answer to. That’s fine, it happens to all of us, even faculty who have taught the same course for several semesters.

I’ve seen 8 common reactions to this situation that we should discuss.

Bad options
  • Don’t pretend to know.

    Most TAs don’t set out to do this; rather, they plan to go along with the student and expect to figure it out before they need to say anything. But then new information stops coming in and they’ve been nodding knowingly and saying vague leading statements and what next?

    Back up, don’t go on. Once you realize you are in a hole, get out, stop digging.

  • Don’t give them a big task of uncertain value.

    Sometimes when you don’t know the answer to their question, but do know that they are doing something else differently than you would, it is tempting to jump to conclusions and assume the two are related so you tell the student try redoing this big thing, it might help.

    It might help. It might not. Unless you have reason to expect it to actually help, don’t add more work to an already-confused student.

  • Don’t tell them your solution.

    This response is intuitive: you know one sure way out of their mess, which is to follow the path you followed when solving the problem on your own (or the path the teacher provided in the reference solution).

    But that’s not teaching, its solving. If you find yourself tempted to consult your answer, I’d estimate the likelihood that you are doing something wrong as at least 80%.

So-so options
  • Go away, look it up, then come back.

    There’s nothing wrong with this; it gets them the answer eventually. But it’s also missing out on a great teaching opportunity, as we’ll see under the good options.

  • Stare in silence hoping you figure it out.

    This isn’t harmful in and of itself, and sometimes you do figure it out. But it is an inefficient use a TA time, can be unnerving to the student, and can create an artificial sense of investment that will make it harder for you to take a different strategy later.

  • Say I don’t know, good luck and then leave.

    This starts strong: I don’t know is the right thing to say! But you should then follow it up with something helpful.

Good options
  • Say I don’t know; let’s look it up together.

    This is the better version of looking it up on your own: the student learns not only (a) the answer, but also (b) that a TA, their near-peer role-model, is learning too (great for growth mindset) and (c) the skill of looking up answers effectively.

  • Say I don’t know; let me get someone who might.

    Sometimes you don’t know enough (or don’t have enough time) to look up the answer with the student with much confidence of success. In that case, leave them another avenue for learning.


As a TA, I learned to take pride in my growing ability to answer even very obscure questions. I also learned to be excited when a question I couldn’t answer came along, because that meant I was about to learn something new. I hope that with these tips you will find hard questions more comfortable and can learn to find that same excitement in the learning that comes from TAing.