What’s the point of writing answer keys?

A teacher has prepared a worksheet. It’s a series of exercises packed full of interest and creativity. She can’t wait to use it with her students. The lesson begins. The lead-in with the photograph in exercise 1 goes well. Then there’s a quick gap fill task in exercise 2. It should take about 3 minutes. But as she checks the answers with the students afterwards, she suddenly discovers that question 2 has more than one answer, question 5 has three possible answers, and nothing fits correctly into the gap of question 6. Within seconds, there is unnecessary confusion among the students.


I think this situation has happened to all of us at some stage in our careers. Writing an answer key to go with the materials before the lesson would have helped. Perhaps this sounds obvious but it’s often the simple exercises which go wrong. Writing an answer key would have tested each part of the material and pre-empted any potential slips or errors – it acts as a self-edit.

The format

The classic answer key provides right/wrong answers. A matching activity key looks like this: 1 c, 2 d, 3b, 4a, 5e. A true/false activity looks like this: 1 T, 2 F, 3T, 3 T, 5 F. But for more open questions (with more than one answer), it’s also worth writing suggested or possible answers. So if there’s a discussion question in your material about the pros and cons of AI, the key can offer a few possible answers such as: It’s a fast way to write a paragraph. / We don’t know if someone has written a text or if AI wrote it. The benefit of including this in a key is that you can check whether the question will genuinely generate ideas.

Encouraging others to try out your materials

In addition to writing them for yourself, answer keys encourage others to use your material. So if you say to a colleague, “Hey I’ve just written this. Would you like to try it with your students?” The other teacher is more likely to accept your kind offer if it comes with a key. And when you ask them afterwards, “How did it go?”, you’re more likely to get positive feedback.

Publishers want answer keys

Finally, if you write materials for a publisher, then an answer key will be needed for the teacher’s notes, either in print form or increasingly as part of the online package. This is only one part of the teacher support material that normally comes with a course, but it is essential and the most-used part. Even if you are not the person commissioned to write the teacher’s notes, your editor will probably ask you for a key to go with early drafts of your materials. Here, the editor Nicola Gardner explains why: “Having the author write the answer key at early stages helps them to find mistakes before you have to, clarify and review their thoughts, and avoid repetition’

Action plan

To sum up, how would you write the answer key for these three questions?

1 This blog post author thinks answer keys are a good idea. True/False

2 Does the author think more teachers will use your materials with a key? Yes/No

3 As a result of reading this post, will you always write keys in the future?

And here’s an answer key:

1 True

2 Yes

3 Some suggested answers: Yes, I will. / I might sometimes. It depends on the type of question. / I’m not sure. I think my materials are fine without a key.

Over to you

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