Don’t Tell Students to Show Their Work—Make Them!

Are you constantly on students to show their work in math class (or other subjects), but to no avail? If so, give them the answers up front—for class work, homework, even a test or two. Really, what better way to stress the problem-solving process than to limit an assignment to that process?! Do this, and you’ll really be messing with kids at first—especially if, like many of my students, they seem to care more about getting work done than getting it done right. What are these students to do when the directions for an assignment are, “Show why the given answer is correct,” and they can’t get the assignment done without getting it done right?

Talk about motivating kids to show their work—I never saw students more resourceful than they were on assignments where I provided the answers. But that’s not all. The process of working backward from the answer also improves students’ grasp and retention of the material. So even when your students do show their work on traditional (i.e., answers withheld) assignments, you’ll still want to mix in from time to time assignments where you include the answers.

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7 Responses to Don’t Tell Students to Show Their Work—Make Them!

  1. Doh! Why didn’t I think of that? In many of my graduate courses I’ve worked problems of the form “Prove that all odd moments of the standard normal distribution are zero,” but I’ve never thought to generalize the template to the more applied problems I assign to my undergraduates. My colleagues and I bitch and moan about students who only hew to the “recipes” for problem-solving and avoid any conceptualization or deep thinking, but we’re actually enabling that very behavior. Students will perform to whatever level you expect and measure, so we SHOULD be assigning problems that require them to explain their reasoning.

  2. shelpike says:

    We were just having a conversation about this topic. I can’t wait to share this idea with the teachers we work with. I think they are going to love it. Thanks!

  3. Joanna Stone says:

    I’ve been doing exactly this with constructed response questions in my 7th and 11th grade classes. It really does throw the kids for a loop at first, but it also helps me to focus on what I really care about. Great idea!

  4. colintgraham says:

    The big problem, as I see it, is that publishers started producing teachers’ books with all the answers, working out, supplementary actives etc. and removing the answers from the student text. When I was at school, the student text had the answers at the back of the book. The maths teacher said: “If you only write the answer, you copied it from the back of the book and you will get -1 for laziness. I am not interested in the answer, I’m interested in the process.” I was 11 at the time. Some of the answers at the back of the book were wrong, because it was a first edition and errata were being printed for subsequent editions. Those who worked through and got an answer different from the one at the back of the book and said the book’s answer was wrong, got extra points for checking answers and showing confidence in their own solutions – provided their working out was correct, of course.

    Having the answer in front of you is a good way of assessing knowledge of the steps required to reach the solution. You could up the ante a little though, by giving the students, say, 10 problems and 10 answers but tell them one and only one of the answers is wrong… OK maybe I’m evil maths teacher after all >:-)

  5. @mmeveilleux says:

    I love this suggestion and I will definitely use it. I also love the suggestion of telling them than one answer is wrong. This is a brilliant exchange of ideas in response to the perpetual ‘show your work’ instruction.

  6. yippee says:

    Thank you for this post! Cannot wait to see if it works with our son. He hates to show his work, and he has a summer math packet to finish. Brilliant idea!

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