What is an answer key? Do homeschoolers always need them? For which subjects are they most helpful?
Here are some answers to these common questions:
What is it?
When purchasing homeschool curriculum products, many come with an answer key. Sometimes, the answer key is included in the price. Other times, it must be purchased separately. Sometimes, answer keys are located within a larger teacher’s instruction manual or a test booklet. Other times, answer keys are separate booklets all their own.
Answer keys may also be called Teacher Keys or Solutions Manuals.
The purpose of an answer key is to provide answers to all of the questions asked in the lessons. This means that teachers (in this case, homeschool parents) do not have to solve all of the problems themselves, making checking student work quick and grading papers accurate. Older kids can also be asked to grade their own papers using answer keys; thus, they work for both parents and students.
Do you need one?
Besides providing the correct answers, answer keys can be very handy for homeschoolers for another reason — they can be used for teaching and learning. Particularly in math and sciences, they often show solutions in a way that teaches or reviews material again. Thus, students who do not arrive at the correct answer on their own can sometimes learn by watching how the answers are derived in the answer key.
As a parent, I see nothing wrong with using an answer key as a teaching tool, and sometimes refer to it myself when I am unable to explain a concept to one of my students. My philosophy is one of learning how to find information and solve problems. Therefore, I allow my students to use any materials they need to learn something they may be struggling with, even if it includes the answer key. I always ask students to solve problems on their own, but then provide help — including the answer key if necessary — if a book or other resources are just not enough.
Can you do without?
The answer depends on the student and the parent. If parents are comfortable with material and able to explain to students, answer keys may not be needed. But, if family members are unable to solve problems and grade papers on their own, and if there are no outside resources, no homework help, no tutor, no expert, no friends who have taken the class before, and no other source of information, having an answer key can be priceless.
Some parents do without answer keys when children are very young, then rely heavily on them as children advance, course material becomes more and more difficult, or students are given more autonomy for learning and scoring their own papers.
Some families buy answer keys for some subjects, and not for others. Whatever works best given the existing level of mastery that exists in the home, and the comfort zone when it comes to evaluating student work, will determine if they’re needed or not.
A final note
When purchasing used homeschool products, check to see if the answer key is included. If it isn’t — and if you want one — check to see if one can be purchased new or used, to match the same edition of the textbook, curriculum or lesson plans. If not, consider whether not having the answers will make any difference during the year. Sometimes, this can make or break the entire experience. Though, as always, it’s entirely your call.
Lastly, keep in mind that not all families assign written work, evaluate student work or assign grades. If this is true for your family, answer keys are probably not necessary in your home, unless used as a learning tool.