Alternatives to the Answer Key

Green Checkmark and Red Minus by AnselmusI’ve been perusing teacher resources on a few teaching websites and am admittedly mystified by the number of secondary English resources that contain answer keys. In my own lessons, I think about target responses that I want for some questions, but I prefer to leave things open-ended. I want students to challenge traditional readings of texts and make new insights, after all. I also know that the question isn’t a very good one if there is only one correct response. During class, I try to never give away The Answer, but rather prefer to ask follow-up questions that ask students to think more deeply about their (seemingly correct or possibly incorrect) responses.

First, when to use an answer key:

  1. When writing a quiz: An answer key will save you time.

Here are a few alternatives to answer keys:

  1. If it’s a low-level question whose answer can be found in the text: Rather than saying “correct!” or “hmm, no” after looking at an answer key, ask a student to justify their response. Ask: “How did you come up with that?” or “Where in the text did you find that?”  If the student can’t support the response with evidence, ask: “what other evidence could be used to support this?” or invite other students to challenge the response with stronger evidence. Then build: “what do you think the author meant by this?” “Why is this evidence important?”
  2. If it’s a question that requires higher-order thinking: Always require students to justify their responses by explaining their thinking. After all, it doesn’t matter if the student has a seemingly strong answer if their thinking isn’t clear, or if they’re not sure how they happened up on that particular answer. Rather than deciding if the answer is right or wrong, evaluate answers by evaluating the logic and use of evidence. Better yet, ask other students to evaluate the logic and consider alternatives.
  3. Finally… Prepare for class by re-reading the text, adding new annotations and target questions (that is, questions that you want students to be able to ask about the text). Prepare sub plans by teacher-created questions, as well as follow-up questions — including questions like those listed above.

A Few Tips

  • Get students in the habit of leading text-based discussions and respectfully challenging ideas.
  • Never give the answer.
  • Consider the possibility that your reading is not The Only Reading.
  • Ask your students to read and analyze multiple interpretations of a single text so that they understand that there are multiple ways to think about a story, a poem, an event.
  • Require students to use sound thinking when they give a response or challenge an idea. The bar for “passable” readings still needs to remain high.
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