To Show Your Work or Not Show Your Work: A Comical Memoir

By Tyler Duniho on October 3, 2012

Do I have to Think? Can’t I just use the Calculator?
Photo courtesy of _M-j-H_ via


I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a teacher say, “If I can’t do it in my head, you can’t either.” Excuse me, but I beg to differ.

I have gotten into trouble multiple times by not showing my work on tests, but none so bad as the time when I was in my high school physics course. Our first test was passed out two weeks into the course. I don’t remember what material was on it, but I do remember that there were quite a few math problems and probably a formula or two thrown into the mix.

I read the directions–I’m a good boy; give me a star. The directions said nothing about showing your work. I know this for a fact because after this first test and the ensuing incident, “Show all of your work” were the first words to show up on every test, bold and italicized. And then, at the end, in case the huge bold type didn’t manage to slap us in the face, our teacher had typed “And remember, show ALL of your work.” Okay, we get it. I’m sorry. You can have my gold star back.

I failed the test even though I answered all questions correctly. Angry, I stuffed my test in my folder, waited for class to end, and then did what any self-respecting high schooler would do: I went to my mommy and daddy.

However, doing this won’t win you many brownie points in college–a place where you’re supposed to be growing up and handling your own problems–so I suggest you just get it right the first time.

In some ways, I benefited from this experience. In college, I’ve taken four calculus classes, three calculus based physics classes, and more chemistry classes than I can count. I can remember very few tests that explicitly required me to show my work, but I did anyway, saving myself precious points.

So the answer is yes, you should always, always, always show all of your work, even if the directions say (or don’t say) otherwise. Your teacher probably won’t take any points off if you don’t, but if you make a stupid error in your arithmetic in calculus, or if you accidentally push your electrons in the wrong direction in Organic Chemistry, you won’t be able to earn partial credit. I’ve seen free answer questions that are worth up to thirty points, and you don’t want to lose all them due to a stupid mistake.

So, class, why do we show our work in college?  In case we mess up. Now go be good boys and girls and earn your gold stars.

I have graduated with a major in chemistry. I also knows how to write well. That makes me a rare breed, indeed.

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