I do not mean for this thread to be a discussion of whether or not students should show work on an exam, whether they should be docked points for just "seeing" an answer and writing it down, whether using a calculator is fine, etc. etc.

Rather, I want to know if there are good, detailed, and clear ways to get across your requirements/opinions/policies about "showing work" so that your students will...

  • Understand what is expected of their writeups on both homeworks and exams, in terms of how they will be graded
  • Follow along with why you expect them to show what you ask of them (at least enough to buy into it for the context of the course)
  • Feel like they are being accurately and fairly assessed on their knowledge and implementation of techniques (or whatever is relevant for the course)

For responses to these queries, I'm looking for specific details about things you have tried, and an idea of how successful they were. This might include a standard "disclaimer" or "prompt" you put on every exam. Or, this might include a common, repeated discussion you have with your classes that reminds them about your policies.

  • $\begingroup$ I had a lecturer who claimed that being aware of what the requirements are is part of being a good student. In his view, a good student knows what to make explicit, what deserves a little better explanation and can be skipped. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud Mar 25 '14 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ @GitGud: I agree with that up to a point, especially for higher-level classes. But the standards evolve as students advance, and the students deserve some guidance. $\endgroup$ – Mark Meckes Mar 26 '14 at 9:54

One technique which is fairly obvious, but (at least for some of us) surprisingly difficult to implement consistently, is to just model for them in class what you expect them to write on their own. When I solve a problem in class, I try to show the same work and write the same explanations that I expect them to show. I also try to talk about it as I do it, explaining from time to time why we need to write such-and-such in order to make it clear to the reader what's happening. If in the process of solving a problem in class we do some "scratch work", I try to make it clear that the scratch work is separate from the actual written-up solution, perhaps by using a different colored marker. And I try to also write these "meta" comments down on the board as well, rather than just saying them verbally. All of these take time and effort, and I'm nowhere near perfect yet, but I've found that the more consistently I engage in this behavior, the fewer complaints I get about grading on clarity and showing work.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for taking your time to model it for them. "Showing work" is generic for some teachers. $\endgroup$ – Mark Fantini Mar 24 '14 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ Wish I could upvote more! I would add that sometimes I tell them multiple ways of saying it that are all correct and show the appropriate working. That often goes down well. $\endgroup$ – DavidButlerUofA Nov 5 '14 at 5:11

The math classroom standard "show your work" is really just a version of "communicate your reasoning" or "explain yourself", required in any profession. We sometimes do a disservice by implying that math classes have a special show-your-work requirement that is somehow not used in other disciplines.

I do model this communication in my own writing in class. But also, a standard I apply to homework and (somewhat) to exams is: "Your work should be understandable by others." If Bob doesn't understand how to do problem 5, could I show Alice's work to Bob, have him read it, and then have Bob say, "Ah, I get it now"? If so, then Alice's communication is good. I apply this standard more rigorously in upper level college classes. With lower level (first-year) college classes, I tend to emphasize that, along with being readable by a peer, student work must foremost be readable by the student herself! Many errors in lower level math would be corrected if the student carefully wrote out the work and then casually skimmed it before handing it in. Students should "show their work" for their own benefit!! I stress this repeatedly, pointing out examples of this in exams and homework, as I grade.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 especially for 'We sometimes do a disservice by implying that math classes have a special show-your-work requirement that is somehow not used in other disciplines' and 'Students should "show their work" for their own benefit!!' $\endgroup$ – Mark Meckes Mar 26 '14 at 9:52

Here's how I address this issue on my course syllabi:

Throughout this class, you need to explain your answers even when the problem doesn't explicitly ask for a proof; this typically means writing in complete English sentences. When deciding how much detail to include, here's the standard to keep in mind: your solution to a problem should be complete and clear enough that one of your classmates, who has paid attention in class but hasn't thought about that specific problem yet, could read your solution and understand exactly how it works. If you only try to convince the grader that you understand the solution, then you almost certainly won't write enough.

  • $\begingroup$ I do this too, but I'm unsure of its effectiveness on its own, since other evidence suggests that few students read the syllabus or remember its contents. $\endgroup$ – Mike Shulman Mar 24 '14 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeShulman: On its own I'm sure its worthless, but one does what one can. I also tell them the same thing in class, though other evidence suggests that few students remember anything said in class which won't be on a test. And of course there's this tactic: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/17933/… But what's more effective than anything else (besides your suggestion of modeling good behavior) is pointing out that part of the syllabus whenever a student asks about points missed for showing insufficient work. $\endgroup$ – Mark Meckes Mar 25 '14 at 8:36
  • $\begingroup$ I also, as vonbrand suggests, put a similar statement on the first couple sets of homework solutions that I distribute. $\endgroup$ – Mark Meckes Mar 25 '14 at 8:40

It does help if complete solution to previous homework/exams is published as a guide. Also add a paragraph or two to homework handouts on what is expected as a solution (perhaps the first few ones only).


I haven't practiced this myself as an instructor, but as a student I benefitted from my professors occasionally singling out someone's homework as an exemplar, and distributing a photocopy of it.


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