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