I love seeing the different ways students think about solving problems. Many of my classes involve students analyzing the pros and cons of different approaches.

As an example, a recent question on my first trigonometry test in my precalculus class asked students to find all exact solutions to in the interval . Admittedly, this is not a complicated problem, but after grading several standard approaches to a solution, one student’s answer (Method 3 below) provided a neat thinking alternative.

As an assessment tool, I don’t view any test as a final product. While optional, all of my students are encouraged to complete corrections on any test question which didn’t receive full credit. For me, corrections always require two parts:

- Specifically identify the error(s) you made on the problem.
- Provide a correct solution to the problem.

My students usually take their tests on their own, but after they are returned, they are encouraged to reference *any* sources they want (classmates, notes, me, the Web, anyone or anything …) to address the two requirements of test corrections. The point is for my students to learn from their misunderstandings using any source (or sources) that work for them. Because students are supposed to do self-assessments, I intentionally don’t provide lots of detail on my initial evaluation of their work.

To show their different approaches, I’ve included the solutions of three students. Complete solutions are shown so that you can see the initial feedback I offer. If there’s interest, I’m happy to provide examples of student test corrections in a future post.

**Method 1:** **Substitution**–By far the most common approach taken. This student solved for and substituted. Others substituted for . [You can click on each image for a full-size view]

This solution started well, but she had an algebra error and an angle identification problem.

**Method 2:** **Elimination**–The same Pythagorean identity could be added or subtracted from the given equation. After talking yesterday with the student who created this particular solution, I was told that he initially completed the left column and attempted the work in the right column as a check at the end of the period. After committing the same algebra error as the student in method one, he realized at the end of the test that something was amiss when the cosine approach provided an answer different from the two he initially found using the sine approach.

After conversations with classmates yesterday, he caught his algebra error and found the missing answer. He also corrected the units issue.

[I’m not sure whether I should even care about the units here and am seriously considering removing the restriction from future questions. With enough use in class, they’ll eventually catch on to radian measure.]

**Method 3:** **Creation**–This approach was used by only one student in the class and uses the same Pythagorean identity. The difference here is that he initially moved the term to the other side and then added an additional to both sides to create a 3 on the left using the identity. Nothing like this had been discussed in class, and I was quite interested to learn that the student wasn’t even sure his approach was valid. What I particularly liked was that this student **created** an expression in his solution rather than eliminating expressions given in the initial equation as every other student in the class had done. It reflected a mantra I often repeat in class: *If you don’t like the form of a problem (or want a different form), change it!*

Also notice how he used an absolute value in the penultimate line rather than the more common .

Again, nothing especially deep about any of these, but I learn so much from watching *how* students solve problems. Hopefully they gain at least as much from each other when comparing each others solutions during corrections.