5 Ways To Respond To Wrong Answers

There are those who believe you should never tell a student who volunteers an answer that they’re wrong.

Smart Classroom Management: 5 Ways To Respond To Wrong AnswersAnd I certainly understand why.

It can be embarrassing for them.

It can feel like a rejection.

It can discourage them from sharing again in the future.

But there are times when you’re looking for a particular answer or set of answers.

And if you accept every response as equally valid, you’re going to confuse your class.

Students need feedback.

They need feedback to learn and grow intellectually.

They need feedback to adjust, dig deeper, and narrow in on relevant themes, ideas, and solutions.

So when a student offers an erroneous or off-the-wall response to your query, the entire class needs to know.

At the same time, however, you never want to discourage anyone who participates.

So what’s the solution?

What follows are five ways to tell a student they’re off the mark without embarrassing, rejecting, or discouraging them.

1.How did you arrive at your answer?”

In this scenario, you’re leading the student to discover on their own where and how they went astray.

What’s cool about this technique is that, with your prompting and further questioning, they’ll often work their way to the answer you’re looking for.

It takes spending some time with one particular student, but it’s worth the effort—as well as the lesson for the rest of the class.

2. “You’re on the right track, but not there yet.”

This is direct, but also encouraging. It validates the student’s thinking and motivates them to go a little deeper.

It also helps the rest of the class adjust and fine-tune their own thinking.

It does, of course, have to be true. Otherwise, you’ll send your entire class in the wrong direction.

3. “Interesting . . . it’s not exactly what I was looking for, but tell me more.”

This is a good response when you hear something you haven’t heard of or thought of before.

The student may have an idea or interpretation that is every bit as good as the one you have in mind but just comes at the problem from a different angle.

This has happened to me more times than I can count and illustrates how important it is to keep an open mind.

4. “I see where you’re going, but remember that . . .”

In this instance, the student is way off, which is a sign that others are likely in the same boat. The best way to handle it is to offer a hint.

Give them a clue, leave a bread trail, get them near the right path but not quite on it. It’s better to have students wrestle a bit to get to a solution rather than guiding them to directly.

It makes your lessons more compelling and naturally draws students into the excitement and challenge of learning.

5. “Thank you!”

This is a good way to go when many hands are in the air and you want to give everyone a chance to be heard.

The way it works is that you would call on every student with their hand up and simply thank them for their answer, without ever commenting on whether any of them are correct.

After working your way through the entire group, you would then reveal the solution you were looking for.

This helps get more students involved and comfortable speaking and taking chances in front of the class. It also allows them to think through and modify their responses as they hear others share out.

They still learn when they’re off base, just not while under the glare of the rest of the class.

Be A Straight (But Compassionate) Shooter

Being honest with students is important.

It’s important to their social and intellectual development, their understanding of subject matter, and their academic progress.

They need feedback. It’s desperately important and an often-overlooked aspect of effective teaching.

But there is a fine line.

Because we also want to encourage participation. We want them to feel safe enough to share their thoughts and ideas, no matter how wild or far out they may be.

It makes learning fun and interesting and provides another layer of that secret sauce that causes students to love coming to your classroom every day.

The five responses above are proven ways to give genuine feedback without discouraging your students or throwing a wet blanket over good discussion.

Add to them your gentle smile and encouraging tone of voice, and your students will continue to take risks no matter how wide of the target their arrows land.

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12 Responses to 5 Ways To Respond To Wrong Answers

  1. Michele October 22, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

    Build on it!
    After a student has offered an answer, I thank them and then invite the class to build on it. I pick one idea offered that was essentially correct and ask the class to add to it. This strategy is inclusive of the student making the contribution but keeps the class thinking on track.

    Deep sea diving
    In my class we talk about shallow (surface level) thinking and deep thinking. I draw a little picture of a boat on water to symbolise this. I remind the students to go deep sea diving with their thinking. So given the same instance as above, again pick an idea and invite the students to go deep sea diving in their thinking.

    Phone a friend
    Scenario – hands are all up with an answer/idea. You call on a student and they freeze like a rabbit in the spotlights. To relieve the tension. I ask them to phone a friend, that is, pick someone else with their hand up.

    Relationships underpin the classroom and my work is to preserve and grow these with every student. I hope these find their way into someone’s teaching toolbox – they work for me.

    BTW – I’ve been reading your articles for years and get so much from them. Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin October 22, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Michele.


    • Barbara Davies October 23, 2016 at 7:29 am #

      Hi, Michele!
      I like your response and would love to see a couple of examples of “shallow thinking
      vs deep sea thinking”.
      What grade level do you teach?
      Would the concept work with young kiddos? (Kindergarten)
      Thanks very much.
      Barbara D.

  2. Marta M. October 22, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

    Thanks to both of you! I just purchased your HS guide and it is wonderful, like your columns are! I too have been following your excellent advice and tell everybody I can about your column.
    I’ve been teaching for many years and still learn from you!

    • Michael Linsin October 22, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

      You’re welcome, Marta. Glad to hear it!


  3. Karin Mohr October 23, 2016 at 11:37 am #


    Thank you for all of the great work that you do! I wonder if you have a good solution for this problem: The same 1 or 2 students always have their hand up (even if it is only a wild guess) and the rest of the class doesn’t participate. How do I get other students involved without discouraging my eager students?

  4. Reenoka Parbulall October 23, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    I too am teaching for over 20 years. One never stops learning, especially us teachers. I am always conscious of my learners for them to not feel embarassed, I welcome these suggestions. Thank you, Michael

    • Michael Linsin October 23, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

      It’s my pleasure, Reenoka.


  5. Barb October 24, 2016 at 6:32 am #

    I love these, especially #3. Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin October 24, 2016 at 7:54 am #

      You’re welcome, Barb.


  6. Dr. Patricia Pulver October 24, 2016 at 7:48 am #

    Love these ideas, and I will certainly share this with my pre-service teachers!
    One suggestion I offer: get the BUT out of it!
    I challenge my students to avoid the word BUT, as it sends an unnecessary negative message. Use AND instead, and see how much more positive the message that is sent and received.
    It’s difficult to do (at first) AND it is worth it in the end!