Learning from students’ wrong answers

I have written before about why I am not a fan of Multiple Choice questions. I just reviewed that piece from a year ago, and it still holds up reasonably well. My main three points were 1) I like learning, and I can’t learn as much from multiple choice questions; 2) my students need practice writing; and 3) my students often surprise me with their questions and insights.

I was thinking about all of this because I just gave a quiz to my students. I gave them a blank piece of paper and asked them to list and describe six events that led up to the Civil War.

We had been doing research in class about eight events between the Mexican-American War and Lincoln’s election in 1860, and I wanted to see what they knew. For history geeks, I will list the items they were responsible for — California Gold rush; Compromise of 1850; Uncle Tom’s Cabin and/or Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (both were anti-slavery documents from 1852); Bleeding Kansas and Popular Sovereignty; the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate; the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates; and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

I am curious to see which events students leave out, and I am curious which events they don’t describe very well — that will tell me what we need to go over.

If I had given a multiple choice test, I could do an error analysis to see which questions students got wrong the most, but I would not have any insight into their wrong or incomplete thinking process.

For example, one of my stronger students wrote about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He described the book quite well, but he then went on to say that “this book was rejected by the South and being seen reading it would most likely result in some form of confrontation.”

I took a moment to send him this email (I find that some of my best teaching these days happens via targeted emails)

You posited that someone found reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the South could prompt a confrontation.  If the person was reading it and calling it rubbish, I don’t think there would be a problem. And few Southerners would likely agree with her depictions (though I wonder how many Southerners read it and changed their thinking). But I presume educated people in the South did read the book — so they’d know what she was talking about.
[I know people who don’t agree with much of what Donald Trump says, but they do watch some of his rallies on YouTube, just to see what’s going on…]
I did some research and found this:
You may find it interesting to learn that some people in the South published counter-narratives about how slaves were treated so well.


Because I gave an open-ended quiz, I’ve learned something unexpected from my student’s wrong answer. The next time I teach, I may have students read a counter-narrative after they read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It gives a more complete picture of how the book was received in the South.

My student still gets full credit, and I get to share this blog post with the class. Most of them won’t care too much about this specific detail (it’s spring), but I do hope they take away the idea that history is all about the details — it’s about really thinking about what life would have been like in the 1850s in the South, and how people would have reacted to a book such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (we read the first 18 pages of it in my class — it’s available here if you’re curious).

Also, I’m trying to drive home the idea that they should ask questions and then do research to explore their questions. I asked myself, for example, this question:

Then I did some research and learned about the counter-narratives.

If I just had students memorize the events well enough so that they could pass a simple quiz or test, they would forget them shortly after memorizing them. By asking them to write and expand on their thought process, we can all learn more about the 1850s.

This idea of “writing more” is challenging for some of my students, though — they ask things like “is this enough?” and “is this right?” They seem to be interested in doing the least amount of work possible, rather than trying to explore the past creatively.

I need to be more explicit in telling students that they can get extra credit for engaging with the material in innovative ways. I made that clearer to my classes last year, I think — but for some reason, some of my students this year are not pushing themselves as much as they could.

Maybe when they read this blog post, they’ll “get it” a bit more, and will ask thoughtful questions about the people who fought in and lived through the US Civil War in our next unit.

But then again, it’s spring…

At least I can share this blog post with my students at the start of the year next year 🙂


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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