Advantages and Disadvantages of Model Answers
Students often look for or ask for model answers after (or even before) doing writing tasks such as homework and essays for exams like IELTS and TOEFL, and there are good reasons for looking at them. Model answers
- present useful language in context, and in a context that students can really understand because they have already written about it
- can help emphasise producing better written answers in general, rather than concentrating just on grammatical accuracy in a way even careful marking often leads to
- provide further feedback on their own writing
There are also plenty of problems with model answers, however. Perhaps the biggest problem is an almost philosophical one – that model answers (the product) may de-emphasise the importance of students learning how to arrive at their own best answers (the process). A more prosaic problem is students copying things from the model answer in their own writing in inappropriate ways. There is unlikely to be enough context in even several model answers for students to be able to tell the difference in meaning between “On the other hand…” and “In contrast…”, the grammatical difference between “Although…” and “However,…”, or the formality difference between “But…” and “However,…”. If the model is any good, there are also likely to be phrases that no one could ever borrow, like “I am famous locally for my interest in this topic.” Even worse, students can try reproducing essay structures like “Points for/Points against/Conclusion” that they are familiar with from model answers when they are asked to write answers to totally different tasks like “What is the greatest advantage of…”
All of these are made much worse when the model answer isn’t perfect – or often isn’t even supposed to be. There is also then of course the danger of copying things which wouldn’t be suitable for any piece of writing.
Some model answers seem to be trying to get around some of the problems above by providing models with very general language that can be used in all kinds of task, but this simply leads to another problem, which is students producing very generic answers, often ones which vary little from task to task. In real life and language exams, however, the best is something truly unique, such as “The third and most important factor to bear in mind” rather than “Thirdly”. Exam boards are increasingly strict about marking down generic and inappropriate use of language, as it is a sure sign of the kinds of students who are only capable of studying for exams and so the kinds of students that universities will complain to exam boards about when they turn out to be incapable of really communicating their own ideas in essays and during lectures.
Looking at model answers could also reinforce students’ ideas that writing tasks are a chance to churn out impressive language rather than a chance to communicate their ideas in the best way they can, and combining the language from several model answers could also worsen the typical student mistake of too many fixed phrases such as linking words in one piece.
The best solution to many of the issues above is to give students model answers that are a mix of good points and bad points, helping them develop a sceptical but open-to-learning approach to each text that they see. Things students can talk about when looking at model answers include:
- Task achievement, i.e. actually answering the question given
- Organisation, e.g. paragraphing
- Use of linking and reference words and expressions
- Consistency of style (e.g. the whole email being semi-formal or the whole text being like a popular science magazine article rather than a paper in a peer-reviewed journal)
- Avoiding generic phrases like “It is widely believed that…” (especially inappropriate use of them)
- Avoiding repeating language from the question
- Avoiding repeating language (e.g. avoiding using “advantage” all the way through the piece)
Students who need more walking through this process of critiquing writing can rank pieces of writing (perhaps by just one of the criteria above) or match statements to the texts they describe (“Only answers half the question” etc).
Students can then underline phrases which they are likely to be able to use in their own writing at some point. They should then try to replace those phrases with something else, to test their comprehension of exactly how those phrases should be used and to show them that there are always other options (often better ones such as more specific phrases like “The last of these might seem like the least convincing argument, but after hearing a TED talk on the topic…”)
This brainstorming of different options can also be done before looking at the complete model answer. Give students a model answer with linking expressions, collocates etc removed, and get them to compare their answers to the complete model answer, making sure you emphasise when their ideas are better than the ones in the model answer. They could also do something similar with organisation, thinking about other ways that (full) answers to the question could be put into paragraphs.
material is good but try to be short