Handling Wrong Answers

In my previous post, I listed questions to use in class discussions, or in conversation with a student or a group of students. Today, I’ll discuss how to handle wrong answers. This is complicated and there is no single correct answer for all situations. I’ll start by clarifying my goals:

  • broad participation by students in the conversation
  • progress towards better understanding for most
  • correctness determined by discourse, not by authority

Teachers often complain that it is always the same few students who raise their hands in classroom discussion. There are many possible reasons for this, such as not giving students enough time to think, not letting them practice their answer by talking with their neighbors, not asking the right questions, and so on. But one huge reason is students’ fear of being wrong. If a wrong answer is met by ridicule from classmates or teacher, that is sure to cut down on participation. But this sort of intimidation can happen in more subtle ways: if we think of classroom discussion as a way to quickly get to the right answer, heap praise on students who supply correct answers, and move on, the message to students is that they’d better not speak up if they are not totally confident about their answer.

So it is important to not rush to the punch line. If something is important and difficult, there are probably misconceptions in the class, and rushing to the right answer will allow those to remain unchallenged. We should strive for an atmosphere where wrong answers are expected, and in fact appreciated. The classroom culture has to make it comfortable to be wrong, as it is really the only way to learn to be right. One way to bring this into being is to not praise correct answers, which are their own reward. Instead praise and encourage participation and risk-taking. “Lucy was brave, and raised her hand even though she wasn’t sure her answer was right. Thank you Lucy!”

Still, there is a sting when one gets it wrong. One way to diffuse this is to ask the student who made a mistake to choose a classmate to help sort things out. This shifts their focus to this newly acquired power. Another approach is to routinely ask for many answers, whether the first answer given is right or wrong, write them all down, and discuss how one would sort out which one is right, perhaps after voting on them. Teacher mistakes (made on purpose, or not!) should be a frequent feature of class discussion, and being relaxed about them helps create the right atmosphere.

Many of the strategies I’ve mentioned rely on keeping a poker face, and using classroom discourse to address the errors. These strategies do support the three goals I mentioned at the outset. However, it is possible to overdo this, and to never ever make clear that an answer is wrong, instead falling into an awkward silence for fear of hurting student feelings. This doesn’t work: students can read our body language in those situations, and in any case will sooner or later realize they were wrong. If you don’t have a strategy to handle the situation, frankly, it’s better to out-and-out acknowledge the answer was wrong, and thank the student for offering it. “Thank you Charlie! Other students almost certainly thought that was the answer, and not discussing it would not help, would it!”


More about teaching, on my Web site.

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