Against Answer Keys

Burn All The KeysI dabble in a few different things in my professional life, one of which is a role as a "content creator" for the courses that I teach.  Certainly, it is not something that I have had as much time to pursue in the post-baby era, but I do still find myself making things here and there from time to time.  And without exception, I can be sure that once I make something and share it with the larger community of teachers who might use it, someone will ask for an answer key.  And, without exception, I can be equally sure that my response will be a gentle, but firm explanation of the fact that I don't make answer keys, since I find them functionally useless, if not actually toxic for my teaching. I've had enough experience with this desire for answer keys to know that my perspective is not necessarily as widely shared as I might think it would be.  There are lots of people around who really feel like answer keys are an absolute requirement for their practice.  It has been my observation that the major reasons why folks might want answer keys fall in to a few different bins, which I will sketch below:

  1. Answer keys are a way of checking one's own answers.  Out of all of the reasons that I know of, this is definitely the one that I am most sympathetic to.  I can understand the need to be reassured that the answers that are determined are in fact, the "right answers".  But, here's the problem:  most of the work worth doing in a classroom doesn't have one right answer.  Most of the best learning is about things that are messy, ambiguous, and otherwise uncertain (especially in the sciences).  I'd hope that most of the work that I develop falls in to this category.  And as such, I would hate to limit the possible answers to something by elevating any one answer above the others.  That work shouldn't be done by me, on a piece of paper.  It should be done by students, in a classroom.
  2. Answer keys keep a teacher from giving out wrong information.  I can understand this one, too, but I take a larger issue with it than I do with #1.  An answer key is NOT going to keep you from giving out wrong information.  You give out wrong information every day, you just don't know that you do.  This is an unavoidable consequence of the tentative nature of human understanding.  And this isn't a problem.  There is nothing wrong with being wrong in front of your students.  As a matter of fact, putting up the wrong answer to a problem presents a series of learning opportunities for a class that are not presented if the instructor just reads off the right answer the first time through*.  To be able to analyze a process and see where things went wrong and how that affected the overall answer generation system is a wonderful thing, and nothing for a teacher to fear or be ashamed of.
  3. Answer keys provide a crutch for teachers who are less-than-comfy with a body of content.  They probably do, but they don't do nearly as good a job as getting more comfortable with that content will.  I understand that this might read a bit condescending, along the lines of "I don't use answer keys because I don't need them."  I'll take that critique, since it can't really be avoided, but I think this issue goes a bit deeper than my own personal facility with the courses that I teach.  Solid content knowledge is the single most effective determinant of a teacher's ability to effectively teach that body of knowledge.  To that end, if you need a key because you can't get through the material any other way, you should probably take a look at why this is the case.  
  4. Answer keys are a shortcut to thinking for lazy teachers.  I'm not going to dwell on this, and I don't think it's true in the vast majority of cases, but I do think that there is a definite danger of using keys in the way they foster lazy practice.  To make matters worse, I think keys reinforce laziness if a teacher is not very, very careful about their usage**.

These are the major reasons why I think people ask for answer keys.  None of them are reasons that make me any more sympathetic to the request.  As teachers, we should really be trying to reflect the tentative, complicated nature of the material that we teach.  There's no answer key for that.

 

*Being wrong is so pedagogically useful that I've been known to throw a problem here and there, just to have the opportunity to analyze the mistakes.

**For instance, I have found that the demand for answer keys is almost reflexive on the part of many teachers who request them.