The Value of Wrong Answers

Bernard Bull The Lutheran Educator Leave a Comment

Know your learners. This is a fundamental aspect of good teaching. If you don’t know the learners, it is hard to determine how best to help them reach a learning goal. While most of us have heard this statement many times, what does it actually mean? As with many things in education, it actually has quite a few meanings, but I’d like to focus upon one that is sometimes overlooked.

Part of knowing your learners is knowing their common misconceptions and assumptions. It is not just about knowing the right answers. It is also about knowing the wrong answers in students’ heads. What are their common misconceptions? Why do students frequently have these misconceptions? What are some of the more effective ways to help them recognize these misconceptions and progress toward a more accurate understanding of a given concept?

Asking such questions and finding their answers calls for being curious about the students. This is probably why some of the best teachers are as curious about their students as they are about the content they are teaching. These teachers are fascinated by how their students’ minds work, why they make certain errors, and how to help them work past those errors.

The more knowledgeable you are about such matters, the more you will be able to help students make wonderful learning gains. You will find that you are able

  • to predict mistakes and provide examples of what to do and what not to do, which will help students recognize and avoid these common mistakes;
  • to create or use more effective illustrations;
  • to create fun and engaging learning games and simulations that take into account common mistakes and help students work through them;
  • to create low-stakes assessments and exercises that check for these common mistakes and work with students to move past them;
  • to uncover the mystery of common learning struggles.

All of this comes from being deeply curious about your students’ wrong answers as much as their right ones. Even a simple quiz or test is a gold mine of insights about your students, what and how they are thinking. While many use quizzes and tests only for grading purposes, perhaps these tools are even more valuable as ways to get a better view of what is going on inside of the wonderfully complex brains of your students.

Yet traditional tests and quizzes do not always give us a complete picture. It is one thing for me to pick the correct answer on a multiple-choice question. It is yet another for me to have to provide an example of the concept in writing, to create a picture or diagram that illustrates the concept, or to apply the concept in a real-world context. When we challenge students with such exercises, we can often surface even more misunderstandings. Perhaps they can regurgitate a correct answer but don’t actually understand what they are regurgitating. Maybe they can pass a test on it but they can’t use it in the real world. That is important information to know, and it all starts with developing the habit of taking interest in the wrong answers of your students.

But wrong is a scary word in school. It equals lower grades, and students are usually not fond of that. Consider how you can create more low-stakes or ungraded activities where students can be more candid as they test out their knowledge. You can be there to glean as much information as possible.

We all celebrate when students get something right, but in one sense, maybe it is just as helpful for us when they get something wrong. We can mine that for insights into their mind and hints on how to help them overcome misunderstandings once and for all, walking the road to deeper learning for both teachers and students.

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