Communicating High Expectations to Students; A Series of Practical Techniques (Part 4): Right Answers

A quick review of this blog series dealing with holding high expectations for students:

Part 1:Discusses what messages we send to students based on who we ask questions of in class.

Part 2: Deals with how to react to wrong answers while still keeping expectations high.

Part 3: Reminds us not to apologize for difficult and/or boring content.

In Part 4,  I want to explore how teachers can help reinforce high expectations by how we react to correct and partially correct answers.  I remember in my classrooms many times when I thought I asked the most thought provoking questions sometimes my students would respond with answers that were just… “meh.” They were correct, or at least partially so, but they did not hit the bar that I set for them.  I struggled with how to react to those answers.  On one hand, I was glad that they were at least on the right track, but I wanted to push them more without being overly demanding.  Below is a strategy that addresses how we react to those answers that are… just “meh.”


Hold Out For Right


In order to “hold our for right” teachers must avoid accepting partially correct answers as correct.  Sometimes in order to save time, or maybe even to help students save face, teachers end up adding on to partially correct answers for students.  For example:

Teacher: “Why do you think the apothecary sold Romeo the poison?”

Student: “He wanted money.”

Teacher: “Yes! Good! He was so poor that he felt he didn’t have anything to lose by risking breaking the law, so he sold Romeo the poison.”

In this example, it is clear that the teacher has done the majority of the analysis.  Holding out for right requires teachers to try to pull out those high quality answers from students.


It is important to place as much as the cognitive work on students as possible.  The person who does the majority of thinking and talking in class will also do the majority of learning. As we know, students are sometimes are smarter than we give them credit for.  When asked questions in which they don’t know the answer, they seem to have a few strategies of their own to evade actually answering the question.  They may, try to change the subject, ask an off topic question, use overly vague language, try some sort of emotional appeal, or offer correct information that doesn’t really answer the question you are asking.

In order to affect the culture of the classroom, teachers should make it a habit of holding out for the correct answer.  So when we ask “what is alliteration?” and they respond with “Peter Piper Picked a Peck…” We can stop them and inform them that they are providing an example when we are really looking for a definition.  This technique will help insure that instruction remains rigorous and communicate to students that you expect precision and focus when answering questions.


  • Prepare questions in advance.
  • Prepare “all the way” right answers in advance, so you will know right when you hear it.
  • Develop a few positive phrases you use when students are close such as “almost there” VS “No, still not good enough.”
  • These phrases should all be worded and spoken so that it is obvious the teacher believes the student will be able to answer.
  • Be sincere and honest when answers need more.
  • Respond swiftly without going into long mini lectures. We want students to get back to thinking immediately.
  • Respond with follow up questions that get to the heart of why their answer was partially correct. “You gave me an example, but can you give me the definition?”
  • Make sure students answer the question you asked rather than supplying something they do know, such as giving an example when you ask for a definition.
  • Remind students to be disciplined when it comes to specific vocabulary.  If the answer is 15kilometers and they only give you “15” then it is not a correct answer.

In the next and final post in the series, I will discuss how we react to correct answers in way that indicates we have high expectations.


Communicating High Expectations to Students; A Series of Practical Techniques (Part3): Don’t Apologize

“I am sorry for this, but this post is probably going to be boring and very difficult to understand, but I want you to read it anyways and we will just get through it…”


How many times have you been in a class where the teacher begins by apologizing for the content?  Although these apologies may stem from well intentioned empathy, consider the effect they may have on students.

Remember as I discussed in part one of this series the  the 3 key messages we want to send to students regarding expectations:

  • This is important.
  • You can do it.
  • I will not give up on you.

In this post, I will mainly concentrate on the importance of working to get students to “buy in” to the importance of content.  I will cover a few ways teachers tend to inadvertently apologize for content then address a few strategies and tips that will help avoid those pitfalls while teaching.


Here is what “apologizing” may look like in the classroom:

  •  “Okay guys – this may not be very interesting today, so we are going to have to work extra hard to pay attention..:
  • “This is on the test, so we have to cover it.”
  • “They say we are supposed to do this project, so we are going to go ahead and get it over with.”
  • “This might be too hard for some of you, but I want you to try anyways.”


It is important to avoid these types of statements as they can become self-fulfilling prophecies.  If you tell students it is going be difficult and they may not get it; the chances are they won’t.  If you tell them it is boring; they will be bored. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the curriculum, we have to find ways to make sure it is engaging for students.  These statements are counterproductive to that end.

There is always value in the knowledge and skills we teacher.  For many of us that value is why we became teachers in the first place.  While we won’t be equally passionate about every topic we teach, we need to make sure students understand the content has value. Maybe it seems idealistic, but we need to make kids believe that there is no such thing as boring content.


Below are some general tips you can use to avoid apologizing for boring/difficult content.

– Reflect on the rationale for content yourself.

– Research why others think it is important.

– Make part of your daily routine to discuss the rationale for content with students.

– If you have trouble rationalizing content, consider what thinking skills are required to apply the content and stress the importance of those thinking skills.

– Try, if possible, to relate content to something authentic, or real world.

– We have to do better than “It’s on the test,” or “You might be on Jeopardy one day.”

– If you are not passionate about topic, find someone who is and see how they teach it.

– Make difficult content more accessible when introducing it to students then increase the complexity.

Some examples of phrases you might use.

“The language in this is difficult for some adults to read, but once we get through it, you will have this down!”

“There are many people who don’t know how to do this; once you have mastered this you will be ahead of the game!”

“It no big deal if you get caught up by some of this, I am going to help you get through it. ”

“One of these days when you are in college, you will be able to show your professors you can already do all this.”

Please comment below with any comments/questions/insights.