When checking the answers to an exercise or activity teachers often revert to a more traditional role, whereby from the front of the room they ask students for their answers and tell them whether they are right.

Checking answers - methodology article

However, in the student-centred classroom this important stage in the learning process could be better exploited so as to be more engaging, interactive and empowering for our learners.

  • Why we check answers
  • Checking answers to tests
  • Make checking answers engaging
  • Make checking answers interactive
  • Make checking answers empowering
  • Conclusion

 

Why we check answers
We spend time checking answers once students have finished a class or homework exercise because learners need to:

  • Be reassured that what they think they have understood is right, before going on to learn and acquire it entirely
  • Have repeated exposure to language to aid acquisition
  • Be encouraged to think about why an answer is correct, or how they have reached a particular answer
  • Have a record of correct language for future reference
  • Have support at different levels. For stronger students, checking answers reinforces what they already know and weaker students can learn from the answers
  • Get a sense of satisfaction from discussing and sharing something they have spent time doing.

 

As teachers we need to:

  • Monitor students' learning, so as to make decisions about whether further practice or explanations are required
  • Use answers to recap and expand on what has been covered.

 

Checking answers to tests
At British Council Cameroon checking answers to tests involves teachers returning corrected tests to eagerly awaiting students. Yet faced with their tests, students focus more on their marks, than on the reasons behind
their incorrect answers. I realised that the frame of mind students are in before checking their tests could be better exploited for learning purposes.
This is what I did:

  • The lesson following the test, I asked students how they felt about it. Learners were clearly aware of which questions they had found difficult.
  • I grouped students in threes and explained that this was their chance to review their questions together.
  • After doing parts of the test again, I gave each group the answers to check with. The motivation to understand the answers was now very strong both because they had spent twenty minutes discussing them, and as each student tried to think back to what they had written in their own test.
  • By the time students got back their corrected tests, the emphasis had shifted away from comparing marks. Students had had an opportunity to work through and understand their mistakes and would now never forget them! The checking process had been an engaging, interactive and empowering one, and one I have since used regularly.

Make checking answers engaging
As with all activities, if the checking process involves learners having to make a 'mental effort' (not just being told the correct answers), the language will be more memorable, facilitating acquisition. This often involves letting students find the answers progressively. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Put the answers on the board, but not in the correct order.
    Be careful to choose exercises from which it is possible for students to work out which question each answer refers to, not multiple choice questions.
  • Students listen to the cassette / read the tapescript.
    Learners pick out the answers from the text. Help build up motivation for checking by asking students to give their suggested answer (but without commenting on whether it is right) before playing each answer on the cassette.

 

Make checking answers interactive
We can exploit the situation of learners wanting to find out the answers as an opportunity for speaking / listening practice. This also fosters an atmosphere of teamwork and peer teaching. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Students have the answers in the form of an information gap activity.
    Example: The answers are on two pages, with 'Partner A' having the answers to questions 1, 3, and 5, and 'Partner B'  has answers 2, 4 and 6. Students check their work, then share their corrected answers with their partner.
    • Different students / groups are responsible for different questions.
      As students are finishing an activity, I go round nominating students/ groups to feedback the answer for each question, quickly checking myself that their answer is correct, and giving them a few minutes to prepare. The advance warning and extra time gives students confidence when reading out their answers, resulting in the other students listening more attentively.
  • Students nominate each other.
    As a variation to the teacher asking students, the student who answers the first question nominates someone to give the next answer, and so on. My students enjoy this, and the curiosity as regards each other's nominations really gets them listening.

 

Make checking answers empowering
Checking their own answers allows students to play an active role throughout the learning process, encouraging learner independence. Both stronger and weaker students can work at their own pace, and the feeling of having
control over this delicate stage can lead to more positive attitudes to it. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Students walk round the room deciding what to check
    Put the answers on flashcards pinned on the walls or laid out on the desks. Students go to whichever cards they need to check. This appeals to kinaesthetic learners, and allows less confident class members to check answers in their own space.
  • Students write the answers on the board
    Fast-finishers can benefit from taking responsibility for this.
  • Students ask the teacher the answers they want to check.
    Students may initially need some prompting for this role reversal. You could put the question 'What's the answer to …?' on the board to help. Once they get started, it is very effective.


Conclusion
When checking answers in my classes I ensure that by the end of this stage, every student is clear about what the correct answers are.

  • I encourage learners to check in pairs first, for confidence-building, peer-teaching opportunities and extra contact with the target language.
  • I encourage learners to really listen to each other. If a student has given an answer and the others look at me because they did not hear it, I get them to ask the student to repeat it, rather than repeat it myself.
  • I remember that incorrect answers can provide important insights into learners' understanding. I remember that my answer or the one in the book may not be correct (!), or may not be the only possible answer.
  • I choose ways of checking answers that suit the exercise / activity and the particular mood of that particular class at that particular time in the lesson.

 

Further Reading
The Practice of English Language Teaching, Jeremy Harmer. Longman
Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, Tricia Hedge. OUP
Learning Teaching, Jim Scrivener. Macmillan Heinemann

Marta J. Sabbadini, British Council, Cameroon

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