When I began writing this blog post, I planned to list examples of ways that we can get students explaining their thinking in the classroom, whether that is through writing, drawing or oral expression. I jotted down a few ideas I’ve used in my own class, and then decided to do a little research. I wanted to find what kinds of self-explanation activities promote deeper understandings and longer lasting remembering of the content.

However, as I began to read articles, I was struck by research that indicates that when students explain their thinking and they’re wrong, they can further deepen their own misunderstanding. Just as explaining correct thinking can deepen sound reasoning, explaining incorrect thinking will likely only deepen misconceptions.

Self-explanation of ones own ideas can be effective under some circumstances. However, self-explaining ones’ own ideas can focus learners’ attention on their preexisting idea; if those ideas are frequently incorrect, this can fail to improve learning or even reduce learning and transfer of new information. To optimize the effectiveness of self-explanation, we recommend explaining correct information rather than ones own, potentially incorrect, ideas (Loehr & Riddle-Johnson, 2017).

As teachers, we are constantly trying to get kids to explain their thinking, but it is often in our instincts to allow wrong answers to be gently passed over so as to avoid hurting that student’s feelings. If I’m reading the research right, this is not a good approach. It’s great to get kids explaining their reasoning, but it is also essential that we teachers are making sure that their explanations are correct, and that they are going back and correcting themselves if their logic is incorrect.

In this post, I thought I would go ahead and list a few strategies and tools that I use to prompt students to correct errors that they don’t catch. Many of these techniques have the built-in advantage of being useful for getting students to catch their own mistakes before I have a chance to. The important thing is that I do not stop short by merely collecting data on student misconceptions; I use this information to create opportunities for students to correct their mistakes before they become even more deeply ingrained in their learning.

1. Explain Incorrect Answers to Students

While it may feel cruel or detrimental to life-long learning to tell a student that their thinking is wrong, this type of corrective feedback is extremely productive to the learning process when done correctly (It’s Wrong Not to Tell Students When They’re Wrong – Ehrlich, Zoltek, 2006). Modeling correct thinking – without shaming – and then having students apply the newly acquired knowledge to novel situations is a key responsibility for teachers across disciplines. 

In addition to providing this kind of corrective feedback frequently, and in a timely manner, research shows that “explaining why incorrect information is incorrect can also improve learning” (Loehr & Riddle-Johnson, 2017). I like to do this by posting my incorrect work on my LMS and have my students record themselves explaining what I did wrong and then doing it correctly themselves.

2. Have Students Catch Their Own Mistakes Through Comparison of Strategies

It’s important in math to teach students multiple strategies so that they can make the comparison about how and why the math works. Teaching multiple strategies is also great to use as a way for students to catch their own mistakes. If they solve the same problem in two different ways and come up with the same answer, chances are their thinking is right. If the answers are different, they can go back and see where the error was made. It can be really difficult to instill the will in many kids to do this independently when they want to finish problems as quickly as possible and move on, but I have found that my growth mindset lessons have really helped to motivate.

Having students show multiple strategies for one problem is as easy as dividing a piece of paper into four and having students show their working out in four different ways. In this example for multiplication the student shows repeated addition, array, count-by, and drawing for 5 x 9.

3. Conference-away Incorrect Thinking Caught in Journals

Journaling is a great way for students to reflect on their ideas. It’s also a place where  pre-existing misconceptions can come out. What I do is have students go back and reread their journals as a unit progresses. They then actively look for how their ideas have expanded or changed. This can be done with paper or online journals. It is important that I check the journals from frequently. If I see a misconception, I can then point it out to the individual student during an immediate 1-on-1 conference, or, if multiple students share the same pre-existing ideas, I can use it as a learning opportunity to explain correct thinking to the whole group.

Even something as personal as journaling requires intervention when there are indications of incorrect thinking.

4. Record and Edit Mistakes Away in an Explain App

There are many apps where kids can draw and record their voices at the same time. Examples I have used include Explain Everything, ScreenChomp, and Seesaw. This is great for classrooms, because everyone can have the opportunity to be the “teacher” at the same time. Once again, maybe the most important part of this activity is that the teacher is watching the resulting videos and using them to provide feedback. When students solve a problem/explain a concept incorrectly, I have them look for their mistake and redo the video. If they solve the problem correctly, but their logic is off, I show them correct thinking, and then ask them to re-explain their thinking.

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The point is, using “explain apps” simply as a repository for pre-existing student ideas and misconceptions may do more harm than good. We teachers have to maximize these learning opportunities by intervening and reteaching when answers and thinking are wrong, and providing additional opportunities for students to explain things the correct way.

5. Make Thinking Visible, Shared, and Celebrated… And Then Give Corrective Feedback. 

Many teachers are inspired by the website and class project, MathTrain.tv, which has Mr. Marcos’s students creating math tutorials for other students to use to learn math. Similar to Khan Academy, these students and their videos have become enormously popular and successful.

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A YouTube channel is a great place to display student thinking. But what do you do when a student has submitted a video that explains the math incorrectly?

Zach’s class has a YouTube channel that aims to do the same thing. Students create videos that are safely shared with the public (See: How Can 13+ Social Media be Leveraged for Elementary Students?), and they have built up a small library so far. The trouble is, what do you do when a student has submitted a video that explains the math incorrectly? At this point in the post, I might be sounding like a broken record, but the answer is that you intervene by correcting the student. Build a culture in your class that values confidence, risk-taking and a growth mindset. Reteach this student the right way or ways to do the math. Model several problems and guide the student towards mastery of the problem-type. Celebrate with the student as their persistence leads to the action of deleting the original video and posting a new one with the correct answer and thinking.

What do you think? How do you get your students to rethink their thinking? Please comment below, and come join our Facebook group, Over-posting Educators!

By @SGroshell




Rittle-Johnson, B. & Loehr, A.M. Psychon Bull Rev (2017) 24: 1501. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-016-1079-5

Ehrlich, Robert, Zoltek, Stanley, Journal of College Science Teaching; Jan/Feb 2006; 35, 4; ProQuest Central. It’s Wrong Not to Tell Students When They’re Wrong
pg. 8


8 thoughts on “Stop Letting Students Think They’re Right When They’re Wrong!

  1. Nice article. I like how you focus on getting the students to develop higher order thinking skills (HOTS). If the students can do this, you will really be helping them along the road of lifelong learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with this: “it is also essential that we teachers are making sure that their explanations are correct, and that they are going back and correcting themselves if their logic is incorrect.” Sometimes it is only through the verbalising of their thinking that we teachers understand where students’ thinking is letting them down. It is important to encourage them to rethink by asking appropriate questions or providing explanations for clarity.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dhh preschool students quickly learn to endure years and years of gentle and not so gentle corrections of their spoken and signed language. As they enter K-1 they endure another round of constant ‘encouragement’ to produce writing, drawings,signed and spoken answers that are
    correct by English standards. The ability for students even at a young age to explain their thinking is critical rather than passively accepting what’s being
    taught. Students are stronger than
    We might think as long as shaming is not involved.
    Loved your article, Stephanie!

    Liked by 1 person

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