Show your work

In life, as in math class, it’s important to show your work.

In math, when we say, “show your work,” we mean writing down enough of the steps so that someone else can reproduce what you did. A classmate or your instructor should be able to tell how you reached your answer, without having to guess.

There are a lot of reasons why showing your work is a good idea. Many students think the most important reason for showing their work, is so they can get partial credit for a problem even if they end up with the wrong answer. It’s true, the more detail you show, the easier it is to give partial credit. But there are more important reasons for showing your work.

If you get a wrong answer on a test, but you have shown your work in detail, then your instructor can see where you went wrong. She can then point it out, and you can avoid making the same mistake again.

In homework, there are often answers available in the back of the textbook. If your answer doesn’t match the book’s answer, you can often figure out where you went wrong by going back through the steps that you wrote down in showing your work. Those written-out steps can also help a tutor find where you went wrong.

The most important reason for showing your work is to help you organize your thoughts, which makes it less likely that you will make a mistake in the first place.

In the “real world” outside of math class, many people think all that matters, is getting the right answer. Being “right” is important, but it is often not enough. We hear a lot lately about the “reproducibility crisis” in science. It’s difficult for someone else to validate your results unless you share your data and your process.

In any workplace, it’s important to show what you do. Sometimes coworkers (and even managers) don’t realize how much a person does, until that person is not there to do it anymore. If the company needs to downsize, those people are likely to be among the ones who are let go.

It’s not enough, though, to share what you do. You should also share how you do it. Like in math class, showing your work is about more than just proving you know your stuff. It also allows you to understand and improve on your own process.

Jane Bozarth’s book Show Your Work says an atmosphere of sharing how things get done has several benefits. For the organization, it can improve performance and reveal challenges and bottlenecks. For a coworker it can save time, solve problems, or build on existing knowledge. For management, it helps capture who does what, and how.

Bozarth says “Some of the most effective examples of showing work offer someone explaining how/why they failed, and how they fixed it.”

As the Bible says, “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.” Share your light! Show your work!

Gerald Belton
Statistician, Adjunct Instructor
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