Mistakes on the Key

I rarely assign students homework out of the textbook. Instead, I write up worksheets for each week and assign those instead. Reasons are myriad.*

It is policy in my department to give the key with the assignment.** With a textbook, that just means assigning odds, or evens, depending on your publisher. Because I write my own worksheets, though, I write my own keys. That’s good for a lot of reasons, most of which have to do with the fact that I’m actually doing the homework.***

The problem, of course, is that I’m human, doing a ton of other things, and don’t have an editor. Textbooks occasionally make mistakes, but most of the time, they’re caught before publication. I write three to four worksheet keys a week, often at 5:30pm while making dinner, and no one’s checking my work. I make mistakes.

In the past, that’s really frustrated some students. How are they supposed to know if they did it correctly if the answer key is unreliable? And I get that frustration. I only see them three days a week, so the key is their main source of teaching and support on their work-from-home days.

This year, I’m taking a new approach. Instead of beating myself up about something that is going to happen anyways, I told every student on the first day of school that there were mistakes on the keys. The first person in each class to find a mistake, email me about it with the correct answer, and justify their answer gets bonus points on the homework.

Will this radically change their grades? No. Most of them get 100s on the homework anyways – I grade for completion – and it counts for a very small part of their average.

But it has changed their approach to homework. I hear from a lot more students on their home days, which is good. Because of the competition, a few are doing their homework earlier than they would have, which is also good. Also, it’s a little too early to say for sure, but I’m seeing a growth in confidence. Students who would normally ask, “Did I do this wrong?” are now emailing me to say, “There’s a mistake on the key, and here’s how I know.” That’s a total change in perspective for them, and I love it. I don’t want them to just believe my answers; I want them to think through things and find the right ones on their own.

Also, I can now communicate mistakes to the class quickly. Every class has a Google Drive folder, divided by week, and I have a “Week n Key Errata” file in each folder. When a student emails me with a mistake, I copy/paste the relevant part of the email into the file, and the entire class can check to see if what they think was a mistake actually was one instead of waiting for the next class day to ask. That also means I don’t have 5 kids emailing me about the same mistake. I didn’t implement this plan until a few days in, and it was definitely needed.

That also means that I have a record of the mistakes, so if I want perfect keys next year, I can go back and fix them. It’s like I’m crowd-sourcing my editing. Although I like this plan, so I probably won’t go fix them. Actually, from time to time, I make intentional mistakes, and not just ones induced from doing math while I’m tired.

Also…it’s made a difference in my attitude. I felt bad and beat myself up for mistakes on the keys, because I was making it harder for the students to learn. Now it’s an intentional part of the class, and I don’t have to feel bad because it’s a learning opportunity. So while I still cringe a little bit when a student emails me with a mistake, it’s a lot less, and growing smaller.

* I like writing worksheets more because it lets me pull problems from a variety of sources – the textbook, other teachers, old AP problems – and have it in one neat package that’s easy to grade. The students like it because they say that the way I phrase problems on the worksheet is like how I phrase problems on the test, which is different from the textbook’s phrasing. Also, even a 20-page worksheet (Don’t judge! It’s for the entire week! And the really long ones only have something like two problems per page!) weighs significantly less than the textbook, and everyone in my school is concerned about backpack weight. I’m under 30 and have arthritis. This isn’t cool, man.

Of course, then I have to write the worksheet and the key, which takes a lot longer than just pulling problems from the book. So there’s that. But I can reuse them with minor tweaks every year, so it’s not like I have to rewrite everything every year. Although I’ve yet to successfully save and reuse the bulk of my keys. Goal for this year.

**The logic of this has to do with the fact that our school is weird. We’re halfway between private school and homeschooling, and parents are considered the co-teachers. The younger grades give the key to the parents, who then checks the work and helps reteach the student. That makes sense, because the parent is the co-teacher. But I teach Calculus and Precal, and very few parents can help their kids with my homework. I just give it to the students, explain how they should use it, and let them take responsibility for their own education.

***I know exactly what I’m assigning, in terms of difficulty and time; I’m able to say, “Oh, yes, that problem” when they ask me about the homework in class; etc. It also let’s me adjust how much support I’m going to give them. Do I just give them the answer, or show each and every step? Do I write notes on why I did each step, or just do the work and let them figure out why? It depends on the topic and the class, but it lets me support them more or less, depending on my goals for them.


One thought on “Mistakes on the Key

  1. Too often teachers simply tell students that mistakes and growth mindsets are valuable. This is a great example of embracing those ideas and leading by example. Love it!


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