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By bottom-line answers, I literally mean the answers on the bottom line of a solution.

So if the question requires two pages of math with the final answer that x=5, all I'm interested in is the x=5 part.

In other words, I just want to know whether I've got the correct numerical answer. I'm not asking for a marking rubric or 'model answer', just a verification.

  1. I completely appreciate the arguments against releasing worked solutions. Students can easily be robbed of learning if solutions are readily available to look at. "Oh yeah I'd have done that".

  2. I don't think the arguments about re-using past questions quite apply here - a numerical answer isn't much help and numbers can be changed to screw people who memorise numerical answers.

Are there any other good reasons for not releasing bottom-line answers? It just seems strange to not be able to verify your own work.

EDIT re Dan Romik's comment: My issue here is just one of feedback. If you told me that I'd receive feedback from a lecturer or tutor (or in the real world, client or boss), I'd agree answers are moot. But the reality in university is that a lot of the learning is independent (some lecturers just say "no time" to any request), and answers are a useful feedback mechanism for students to independently spot and diagnose their own flaws.

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    Why should they? It doesn't take any work to give someone an old exam, but writing an answer key for it is extra work that an instructor may or may not choose to do. – NoName Nov 24 '17 at 3:04
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    As above, so compare with your fellow students and see if your answers are the same - if not, what did or did not they do... – Solar Mike Nov 24 '17 at 5:09
  • One other point is why focus only on “old” exam questuons? Most courses have practise questions for each topic which can be worked through and those either have solutions published or one can get feedback on. Focusding on “old” exam questions may be a false lead as the course can change over time... Or, possibly some students are trying to “predict” the questions for the next exam? – Solar Mike Nov 27 '17 at 10:05
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One, it's extra work, as pointed out by @NoName.

Two, the answer may not be as helpful as you think. Just a month ago, I was grading a stats and probability exam and for one of the questions students who made two very common errors (out of 200 exams, about 40 students made those mistakes) in their work got the right answer, because the errors 'cancelled'. If bottom line answers to that exam were released for the students next year, those making those two mistakes would mistakenly think they knew the correct solution.

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I’ll focus on one aspect of your argument, namely

It just seems strange to not be able to verify your own work.

No, it’s not strange. This is how real life works. Once you get out of school and into industry or any other kind of workplace, you will find yourself in a setting where “bottom line answers” to the “questions” you are assigned are never given. At that point, your mild obsession with wanting to cross-reference your “solution” against the “official” one will be counterproductive and will distract you from focusing on just completing the tasks you are working on.

Thus, one argument against releasing bottom line answers is that it helps you develop healthy problem-solving habits that are more applicable to real life situations rather than being tailored to the simulated problem-solving situations of a university course setting.

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  • This is a great argument! Thanks for the perspective - I really appreciate it. My follow-up question would be: In the real world, verification / judgement of your work comes from your boss or client. In school, you largely self-assess when practicing for an exam. The only feedback loop from this practice is in knowing whether you're reasoning correctly or not. Realistically, isn't a bottom line answer the only mechanism here? – Thevesh Theva Nov 27 '17 at 9:09
  • In other words, there is room (coursework, dissertation, projects, essays) for setting questions which have no set answers - you come up with the best solution. However, my concern is that the comparison here is not "student gets verification VS student gets learning experience". Rather, how it actually plays out is that students are more likely to not spot their own bad reasoning, because there's no feedback. – Thevesh Theva Nov 27 '17 at 9:24
  • @TheveshTheva yes, I agree that feedback is very important for learning. Ideally you would submit homework and get detailed feedback on your solutions. Sorry if in practice that doesn’t always happen. And yes, a bottom line answer can be a mild form of feedback that may in some cases be better than no feedback at all, so that’s an argument in favor of giving such answers. But you asked for arguments against, and I gave one, which would perhaps be more compelling than the argument in favor in the eyes of some instructors. I don’t have an opinion about who’s right - it depends on the context. – Dan Romik Nov 27 '17 at 9:56
  • absolutely! Which is why the first thing I said was how much I appreciated it :D I just thought I should argue against it to further my appreciation of the argument. // Yeah, in practice the feedback part is difficult unfortunately :/ – Thevesh Theva Nov 27 '17 at 10:06
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In my experience, it can definitely put the focus on the wrong aspect of learning, and encourage bad revision habits, when it comes to exams. Such as trying to think backwards from the answer (because even if it's on a separate sheet... I don't know about you, I can't help but look at spoilers).

As I think you alluded to, the method and working part of an answer is generally the most important part - it encourages clear communication, logical steps and actually thinking about the problem. Particularly when you consider that - both in exams and in the real world - the eventual answer could be wildly different because of transcription errors, incorrect initial information, as examples. If you've gone through the right steps to find a solution, you're also in a better place to sanity-check the final solution.

Certainly I've found that chasing that final answer can be confusing and really takes the emphasis away from just trying to understand the reasoning behind the solution. I can understand why an instructor would choose not to release them for this, and the other reasons suggested.

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