Getting right answer shows ‘deep understanding’

Students display their “deep understanding” of math problems by getting the right answer, argues James V. Shuls, director of education at the Show-Me Institute.

His second-grade daughter’s school is stressing “real world” word problems this year. His daughter subtracted correctly to find how far the snail crawled, but got the lowest rating, “does not meet expectations.”  She didn’t use the prescribed process.

“Interestingly, there have been other problems where she reached the wrong answer, but received a higher score,” writes Shuls.

The teacher apparently wanted students to follow an 8-step process that includes drawing a unit bar for each variable.


It’s clear his daughter didn’t just stumble on the right answer, he argues. She had a process that made sense.

“When a student can correctly identify the type of problem and can solve for the answer using some type of process, they understand the concept.”

“Knowing you’ve done something right and then getting criticized” anyhow is discouraging for students, Shuls writes.

Rather, we should celebrate correct answers and, when necessary, demonstrate more efficient methods or other ways of thinking about problems. This should be done while keeping in mind that what matters most is that our students have a method that works and is transferrable to other problems.

We tell students to “think like scientists” and “act like mathematicians,” Shuls writes. “Do you know what good scientists and mathematicians do? They get the answer correct.”

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