Tell Students When They’re Wrong

Instructors need to be thoughtful and reflective about those strategies they use when they respond to students’ answers, and this is especially true when the answer given is wrong. Most of us understand that the stakes are high in this case. Students are easily intimidated. Even those not participating can be negatively affected by how an instructor handles incorrect answers. Some current philosophies of education argue against telling students that they are wrong. The thinking here is that students need to figure out for themselves if their answers are right or wrong. Instead of telling them, instructors should guide them to the right answers, possibly through some sort of Socratic dialogue.

Robert Ehrlich and Stanley Zoltek (reference below) are strongly in favor of telling students when they are wrong. Their context is science, but the points they make apply to other kinds of knowledge as well. They think that instructors ought to “destigmatize” wrong answers. Mistakes are an inevitable part of learning. They recommend encouraging students to be less afraid of asking “stupid” questions, quoting noted physician Alvan Feinstein, “Ask stupid questions. If you don’t ask, you remain stupid.”

They think that putting students under some pressure, while it may undercut their confidence at the moment, in the long run benefits their learning and prepares them for the future. In the world of work, employers have to tell employees when they are mistaken. College classrooms are safer places where students can learn how to handle negative feedback so that it doesn’t traumatize or humiliate them.

Always praising answers puts instructors in the awkward position of having to respond to wrong responses indirectly or vaguely. This may result in “considerable student confusion over where the truth lies, or even the misguided belief that correct answers in science may be a matter of opinion.” (p. 10)

Finally, they make the point that not using corrective feedback in the classroom is actually a condescending way to respond to students. If a colleague makes a mistake or says something foolish, he or she would quickly be corrected by other colleagues. It’s something expected among equals.

Erlich and Zoltek do understand that how wrong answers are handled is crucial. They make two points: “First, telling students they are wrong must be done in a noninsulting and nonpersonal manner.” (p. 8) It is the answer that is wrong, not the student. “Second, it is not enough to tell students that they are wrong; they must also be told which aspects of their answers are correct, and which aspects are incorrect.” (p. 8) They hold that corrective feedback is not the same as negative feedback. The correction may include many additions, like “Jim, that answer is not correct, but you’re on the right track.” “That answer is close, but not quite right.” “That’s a wrong answer, Susan, but you’ve made a common mistake that all of us can learn from.”

They summarize their case for calling wrong answers wrong with this observation: “If you succeed in creating a class environment in which everyone is treated with mutual respect, and being wrong is okay, you should find that students are less fearful of being wrong, and more apt to contribute to class discussion. In this case, students will also be apt to analyze your comments more carefully and may on occasion have the pleasure of correcting you the next time you are wrong!” (p. 10)

Reference: Ehrlich, R., and Zoltek, S. (2006). It’s wrong not to tell students when they’re wrong. Journal of College Science Teaching, 35(4), 8–10.