Thursday, November 18, 2010

Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Checking the answers in a homework or in-class assignment can be one of those huge time eaters. It is a necessary evil. After all, there is little point doing an activity if students never find out if their responses are accurate or not. However, calling on students to mechanically read their answers aloud can take up a lot of valuable class time with very little pay off. It is boring, predictable and involves very limited student talk.

My goal when I spend time checking student answers is twofold. First, I want to make sure students get the correct answers. And second, I want to make sure students understand why their answers were incorrect so that they can learn from their mistakes. But how is this best accomplished?

Time for Questions

When I assign homework, I usually provide the answer key. Students do the work, check their own answers, and put a star beside the questions which they don’t understand. At the beginning of every class, I ask the class if they had any questions about the homework. We go page-by-page and students can ask their questions and get a brief explanation. This system has worked very well for me in adult classes which are low-stress. Students have to feel comfortable enough to ask questions in front of their peers without losing face.

Of course, you also have to be able to trust the students to do the work before looking at the answers! One teacher I observed who did not have the same faith in her students put several copies of her answer key on the back wall. Students came early to the class to check their answers; it was a genius way to encourage students to come on time!

Check with a Partner

In a recent edition of Voices, Nicholas Northall suggests giving students time after an activity to check their answers with a partner. “This time allows them to discuss any answers they don’t agree on and to reach a conclusion as to what the right answers are” (Northall, 2010, page 11). This pair work would best supplement, not substitute for, a traditional answer check. Students still need your final word on “right or wrong.” But during this time, the stronger students may be able to explain their own choices to their partner, thereby eliminating the need for as much teacher talk.

Write it on the Board

I once observed a teacher who had her students come up one-by-one to write the answers to the homework on the board. This was SO boring for the students, and it cut into the time the students might be using for a communicative activity. Instead, she could have had the students who came into the class early write their answers up before the class even started. Or, she could have had the students work in pairs, as described above, and then shown the answers on a PowerPoint slide or overhead projector transparency.

On the other hand, I observed another teacher who used board writing in a very valuable way. She played a listening and, as the class listened and took notes, she took her own notes. After, the students were able to compare what they had written with her answers. It was immediately clear to the students if their notes were accurate and adequate.

Running for the Answer

Another teacher I observed turned her answer check into a fun communicative activity. She put copies of the answer key in several places around the class. She put the students into pairs; one was the “grader”, the other was the “runner”. The “graders” sat with both their assignments and their partners’ assignments. The “runners” moved between the answer key and the “graders.” telling them what the correct answers were. This format did take a bit of extra time, but the energy level in the class was high and all the students were interacting, so, in my opinion, the time was well-spent.

How do you check answers in your classes? Do you have any novel techniques for making the most out of this time? How do you make your answer checks clear and communicative?

Northall, N. (2010) What’s the answer to question 5? Voices, 216.


Comment from LAURA
November 18, 2010 at 8:06 pm


Comment from David Brown
November 25, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Thanks Tamara for your ideas, I think that checking the students answers is also an important part of their learning. I’ll use some of these ideas in my own class. I like the idea about getting students to check each others answers as a platform for discussion of the questions. Thanks!

Comment from Annet
April 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Thanks for these ideas. I tried all of the above in the past semester. They all worked fine. I never thought about posting answers before, but now that I do it, the process saves a lot of time.

I also find different types of answer checks may benefit different courses. For example, for my evening course, most of the learners are working professionals and don’t have time to complete homework on time. So, when I post the answer key on the bulletin board, they can refer to the key whenever they have completed the homework. I call it the no-pressure homework.

Comment from Tamara Jones
April 21, 2011 at 3:10 am

Great idea! I love the idea of no-pressure homework!

Comment from Louise Gobron
April 22, 2011 at 6:13 am

One idea I use frequently which I got from my colleague, Susan F., I call “half answer keys.” I fill in the odd-numbered answers on Partner A’s answer key sheet, and the even-numbered answers on Partner B’s answer key sheet. I hand out the half answer keys and a “Partner A” student seeks out a “Partner B” student to check homework. I instruct the students to tell their partners what they wrote in their books/on their worksheets for the odd-numbered/even-numbered items they don’t have answers for. The partner tells them if they are correct or not. (Students are discouraged from simply showing the correct answers to their partners by hiding their half answer keys from their partner’s view.) When a student doesn’t understand why s/he made an error, many times the partner can explain the rule or the exception, creating a meta-language conversation. I monitor the activity while it’s going on to see where the greatest number of problems lie. After this interactive task, I offer the whole class clarification about what I saw/heard as I monitored (e.g., misapplication of a rule, unknown vocabulary items in the exercise)and then take questions from the whole group. This to a great degree controls for students who might not otherwise be on task and requires everyone to “speak the grammar,” speak about the grammar, and well, just plain speak.

Comment from Tamara Jones
April 25, 2011 at 2:22 am

I LOVE this idea and will try it in class this coming week! Thanks for sharing!

Pingback from Teacher Talk » The Gift of Gab? – Part 4
February 15, 2016 at 10:30 am

[…] This feedback from students can help instructors know what challenges students are still facing and plan the next lesson accordingly. After all, “[w]ithout establishing why the errors occurred, we have no means of assisting learners to get it right next time” (Field, 2008, p. 81). For some other ideas for making answer checks more interactive and less teacher-talky, see a previous post I wrote, Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative. […]

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