The Right Way to Respond to a Student’s Wrong Answer

Getting students to participate in classroom discussions is an essential part of teaching, from kindergarten through adult education. And while the specifics of each situation vary depending on the subject matter and the students’ age, all teachers should be prepared to respond to the student who answers a question but gets it wrong.

Robert Jolles, a speaker, consultant and author of books, including “How to Run Seminars and Workshops: Presentation Skills for Consultants, Trainers, and Teachers,” suggests that teachers look at this problem in two ways: by considering what questions to ask and how to phrase them, and then by calibrating their responses to incorrect answers.

Choose your questions carefully

when students get an answer wrong, you need a good strategy for correcting themIf you want to see if your students are following what you’re saying — or if they’re listening at all — a seemingly easy way is to ask what Jolles calls factual-recall questions: What is the capital of Vermont? What is the formula for calculating the area of a circle? How do you conjugate the verb “to go” in French?

These direct questions are very common, Jolles said: “We’re going to make sure students are listening and sneak up and drill them.” The problem, though, is that although they may make students pay attention, they also create a stressful environment, where students are nervous about being called on rather than genuinely engaged.

“They intimidate — they don’t inspire people,” Jolles said. “They create fear.”

Open up your questions

One solution is to ask more open-ended questions, which make students think about the topic without putting them on the spot.

In situations where the goal is to see if students have learned specific facts, so quizzing them on these facts is the best way to find out, Jolles suggests asking for volunteers rather than putting one student on the spot: “Can anybody tell me how to find the area of this circle?”

This is especially helpful at the beginning of a class, he said, “while you’re trying to create trust and momentum.”

Respond with empathy to wrong answers

Regardless of how carefully you choose and phrase your questions, students will give wrong answers. If there is any way a student’s answer could be correct — the student explains a convoluted way to solve a math problem instead of the faster way you have been teaching, for example — then acknowledge that the answer is technically correct before reviewing the method you taught.

If the answer is clearly wrong, though, Jolles suggests using a variation of a classic sales technique called “feel-felt-found.” The outline of the teacher’s response would be, “’A lot of people feel the same way you do when they look at this type of problem, and when I first started learning I felt the same way. But what we’ve found is …’”

In the case of an incorrect answer to an arithmetic question, the response might be, “’It’s actually 7, but half the world thinks it’s 6 just like you.’”

The goal is to build trust with students so they know the teacher isn’t trying to embarrass them.

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