A Question of Questions, Part II: How to Respond to Wrong Answers

by Harmony Button

If you want to encourage curiosity in your classroom, you have to create an atmosphere that rewards intellectual risks and celebrates “good” mistakes. This doesn’t mean that you need to sugarcoat every failure. In fact, trying to salvage a truly wrong answer can sometimes just make the student feel worse, and it often comes out sounding patronizing… but there are ways of making students feel okay about getting answers wrong. 

The Thinking:

If you’re asking truly open questions, then it’s unusual to get completely wrong answers – they’re probably just responses that started on the right track and went skiwampus somewhere along the way. If you walk the students back through their stages of thinking, you can usually find where they took a wrong turn.

In order to re-trace these steps, however, you have to be able to notice and name the types of thinking that are happening in your classroom. One way to do this would be to ask your students to list the verbs that describe the actions they do inside the classroom, and then classify them into levels of thinking. Chances are, any type of thinking they come up with could fit into this Map of Understanding.

The Practice:

Remembering that a student’s answer is an example of a problem-solving process can also help you validate every response, however wrong-headed it might be. Here are a few common ways that teachers might respond to wrong answers, and a few reactions to each. When a student gives a wrong answer to a question you’ve posed in discussion, do you…

A. Say, “I just answered this question! You all need to be quiet and listen!”

You should probably immediately read this blog post about what to do when you get that yelling feeling. And then forgive yourself, and apologize to the students who aren’t being loud (remember, they’re also the ones who are often the most distraught and hurt by blanket-criticism of a class, or the anxiety of a yelling teacher). When you’re feeling frustrated in a classroom, remember that speaking your frustration can be healthy (ie, “I’m feeling really frustrated and unsettled by how hard it feels to concentrate right now, and I can only imagine some of you are frustrated, too”) – but acting out of frustration is probably not going to help anybody learn better, including you as teacher.

B. Say, “No,” and move on to another student.

This tactic usually backfires in terms of the student’s willingness to take risks, as well as the health of your classroom culture. You’ve just turned your classroom into a game show, and this contestant got the sad-trombone. What’s it going to take to get that kid to play again? There are many students who will never risk this kind of rejection if they see it in your classroom. Any student struggling with a fixed mindset regarding your subject will be especially vulnerable to this kind of response, since it will confirm their worst suspicions: they are, and always have been “bad” at (your discipline). A blank stare, or other ways of putting students on the spot, often have the same effect. And while “no,” is the most blunt response, slightly more tactful phrases can be equally counter-productive: “not quite,” “hmm,” or any other ultimately dismissive responses are just gentler ways of saying “no.”

C. Say, “Good try, but you’re probably thinking about / forgetting / confusing this with…”

What you’re telling the student in this situation is that you acknowledge and empathize with the difficulty of the problem, and you’re starting to break down the stages of thinking necessary in order to respond to it. This kind of comment often ends with an invitation to the student to give the question another shot, or to respond in some way, even if it is with a “Yeah, that was confusing,” comment.

If you’re not careful, though, students will quickly come to read “good try,” as just another way of saying “you’re wrong” – so don’t overuse this phrase. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure you’re praising the response specifically, whether it is the effort, the creativity, or some process of thinking. Try phrases like, “interesting theory,” or “that’s a good observation,” or “I see you trying to make a connection,” instead of just “nice try.”

D. Say, “That’s totally wrong, but thank you for making that mistake! I’m so glad we got that out there – this is a really common one.”

What you’re doing is normalizing the mistake, celebrating the risk, and praising the student for being a valuable member of the learning community. The mistake becomes a praise-worthy part of the learning process, instead of a set-back. You’ll want to make sure you use this one on a student who will be able to get past the “you’re totally wrong” part and hear the praise of the “thank you” part of your response. This response is best used on the most outspoken students, but it speaks volumes to the least outspoken students who hear you use this language… and who will be more likely to take similar risks, themselves.

E. Say, “How did you get there?” (or some version of the “why?” question).

This response is a way of avoiding telling the student that they are wrong – but setting them up to come to that realization, themselves. Asking a process question has the built in possibility of the student self-correcting (yay!) or looking to another student for support (also a positive moment of potential growth). This tactic puts the class on the same footing to “solve” the problem, instead of in competition with each other to be the first to the “right” answer. Just be sure to use this “what made you think that” question in response to answers that are correct and on the right track, as well as odd-ball or incorrect ones… otherwise, it quickly also becomes code for “you screwed up and now you’re on the spot.”

If you’re working on developing a classroom in which students validate their own work and look to each other for confirmation, instead of always seeking your approval, it wouldn’t hurt to make this response your go-to… and then, after the student describes how s/he “got there,” turn the idea back to the class to react to, instead of immediately validating or contesting it, yourself. What you lose in the time efficiency of being able to quickly let a student know if they’re on the right path, you gain in cultivating transferable thinking skills and deeper engagement from the whole class. When you respond in this way, you are teaching the speaker to reflect and articulate on their own thought processes, and you’re training the rest of the class to listen, because they’ll be asked to react, next.

The Habit:

One way to know how effective you’ve been in responding appropriately to students who are wrong is to listen to how your students start to speak to each other. If they really want to one-up each other, or “get” the point, or if they lose interest if they’re not immediately praised for getting the right answer, you might want to think about what you could do to shift the culture of the classroom. But if your students start to identify the level of thinking where someone went wrong (ie, “I think you’re assuming that….. but maybe….”) and if they are able to correct each other in respectful, productive ways, then chances are, they’ve learned it from you.

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One Response to A Question of Questions, Part II: How to Respond to Wrong Answers

  1. Cherese Mathews says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. I am a lower school reading tutor and even though I mainly work with students one-on-one, this is really good information to have

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