May 13th, 2008

Ways of Responding to Wrong or Not Very Good Answers …


improving student participation

Whatever the relative quality of a student’s answer, faculty members can respond in ways that increase the likelihood of participation by students in the future or dampen their confidence and willingness to share their thoughts and ideas.

For example, sometimes faculty will unintentionally demean or put down the student. “Where did you get that idea?” (asked in a tone of voice that makes the student think the idea is from outer space even though the instructor is only trying to figure out how the student arrived at the answer).

To increase the chances of student participation, it helps to have a repertoire of strategies to employ.

  • Correct the answer. Fix it for the student and the rest of the class. Make it right.
  • Ask how the student arrived at that conclusion. “Explain your thinking.” “Take us through the steps that led you to that conclusion.”
  • Defer to the rest of the class. “How many of you agree?”
  • Solicit a collection of answers before designating the right or best one. Maybe let the class argue the merits of various answers on the way to identifying a good answer.
  • Say that the answer is wrong, flat out, and then move on to another student.
  • “Here’s the question you answered and that’s not the question I asked.” (This requires being able to quickly figure out what question the student answered, which is not always easy.)
  • Respond with positive feedback … not saying that a wrong answer is right, but with feedback that acknowledges the effort. “No, but thanks for trying.” “Close, but not quite right.” “I’m glad you made that mistake—it’s shows something that a lot of students misunderstand.”
  • Ask a follow-up question that leads the student to understand the error in the answer. “If that’s correct, then how do you explain ______ ?”
  • Get the class to correct or improve the answer. “Well, we need to work a bit more on Bob’s answer. How would you make it stronger or better? What needs to be corrected?”
  • Keep the focus on the answer. “This answer isn’t very good” as opposed to “No, Mary, you’re wrong.”
  • Try to find something in the answer that shows promise. (Works fine in most humanities courses, but not in a math classes.)

The more challenging question: How do instructors know which strategy will work best, given the student, the answer, and the class? Even more mysterious: How do they decide which strategy to use? Is it a conscious choice or something more like a patterned response?