Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

For the last ten years, we've worked one-on-one with students from elementary school through graduate school. No matter their age, no matter the material, when you ask what they're struggling with, students almost universally name a subject: "math," "English" or, in some instances, "school." Doubting that all of school is the issue, we then ask to see their last test. After some grumbling, the student digs down, deep into the dark, dank recesses of his or her backpack, and pulls out a balled-up, lunch-stained paper that, once smoothed out, turns out to be the latest exam.

To a teacher, this should be incredibly frustrating. You spend a huge part of your life grading tests, commenting on essays, and providing thoughtful feedback on homework assignments . . . only to have them wadded up and ignored. (Yes, students look at their tests, but you shouldn't harbor any illusion that they look at anything but the red letter grade.) Before writing students off for being ungrateful or lazy, you need to understand why what they're doing makes perfect sense.

The Science Behind Mistakes

Telling students they need to take advantage of the feedback they get isn't just good advice -- it's established science. In the last few decades, researchers have discovered a lot about how people become experts. The main idea, made popular by everyone from author Malcolm Gladwell to rapper Macklemore, is the 10,000-hour rule. Ten thousand is the number of hours it takes to become an expert in almost any field. While it's wonderful that people are starting to understand how work leads to expertise, the most important part of that research is not how much practice someone needs to perform, but what kind of practice. This latter category is called deliberate practice and involves isolating what's not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.

Picture a classical violinist rehearsing. He or she would not play a new piece start-to-finish, fudging through tricky sections and trying to "be done." That musician stops in trouble spots, figures them out, and then plays that measure over and over again, and only moves on when it's perfect. The same principle applies to schoolwork.

Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice.

So why don't students view their mistakes as a valuable asset? Well, students don't think about their mistakes rationally -- they think about them emotionally. Mistakes make students feel stupid. "Stupid" is just that: a feeling. Specifically, it's the feeling of shame, and our natural response is to avoid its source. If we say something embarrassing, we hide our face. If we get a bad grade, we hide the test away. Unsurprisingly, that's the worst move to make if you ever want to get better. Academic success does not come from how smart or motivated students are. It comes from how they feel about their mistakes.

Changing your students' perspective on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give yourself as a teacher. Imagine having a classroom of students who are engaged and constantly improving -- it's every teacher's dream. Instead, teachers face too many students who are disengaged and really rather surly. That surliness is years in the making. By the time students walk into your classroom, they've likely already internalized their mistakes as evidence that they're just not smart. Getting a bad grade feels like a personal attack. No wonder they're giving the deliverer of those grades the stink eye.


Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien


A Fresh Take on Mistakes

To help your students rethink mistakes, help them be specific about their errors. Knowing that answer #3 is wrong doesn't mean much. Knowing that they didn't understand mitosis gives them a mandate for getting better. Often, when we go through tests with students, the mistakes they perceive as dire are either careless errors or a single concept applied incorrectly on several questions. Either way, the "fix" is usually smaller than how big the problem feels.

You can also help students view their mistakes as helpful. The red pen isn't the enemy -- when students understand how to deal with errors, red means go. One way to encourage that attitude is to take the most common mistakes that the class made on a test or quiz and analyze them together. The more open everyone is about the mistakes they've made and how they happened, the less significance any student will place on future errors.

Mistakes happen for concrete reasons. A student didn't memorize all the requisite facts, didn't execute the steps of a process, or perhaps just ignored the directions. The red "X" is just a simple assessment of the actions that student took -- actions he or she can easily fix next time. Sharing that clarity and causality with your students is the best way to teach deliberate practice, instill motivation and help them develop a more constructive relationship with mistakes. In short, this creates the class you and your students have always wanted.


Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

SBarnett's picture

This gives me a totally new perspective on how to assess students and help them to fill in the content gaps. As a student, I remember feeling hopeless and it would have been very helpful to have a teacher who broke it down for me like the author stated above. Well, I missed #3...oh well! It would have been much more effective for the teacher to provide feedback about missing the metaphase portion of mitosis in #3 instead of just marking the entire thing with an "X". Much more doable for an already overwhelmed high school student. Thanks for the different perspective!

harambeewrites's picture

This article is totally spot on; however, I've found it challenging to review mistakes in classes that have a wide academic spectrum. I'm wondering how to make reviewing tests engaging and worthwhile for both students who ddi extremely well and those who did poorly.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music

One of our most popular songs with kids is called "Messy." It's all about how the need to over-control every last detail is what ties us all up in emotional knots. Often one little key phrase heard enough times really can make a difference with a student. "Bless my mess!" Spoken with affection aimed at oneself? I've seen this new thinking work miracles.

We also have a song called "Monkey." It's all about worry thoughts that chatter inside all of our heads. Oh, the grief those monkeys can bring!

I just received a note from another teacher thanking me for the song. It seems one of her students made a huge mistake in front of the entire class. Then he smiled and said, "It's okay. My monkeys made me do it!"

Everyone laughed, no one felt bad. He fixed his mistake. And that's how we learn.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

We recently posted this blog on our Facebook page and there were some fantastic tips and comments that would add some inspiration and color to this post:

:: Sara Johnson - This is something I have worked really hard at teaching my second graders. The phrase "It's okay to make mistakes, that's how you learn" is heard often in my class. I also always thank them for coming up and trying in front of the class even of they get it wrong. I tell them chances are someone else did it the same way too and wasn't brave enough to say something. Since doing this they always leave with a smile and even the struggling kids volunteer to come to the front of the class. I was once inspired by a classroom poster that said "people make mistakes that's why pencils have erasers" it has stuck with me for many years and now emulated in my classroom

:: Greer Curry-Haner - After we score our math work, I ask my kiddos who thinks they made the biggest mistake. It is a competition to have the biggest mistake...then they show others what theistake was and how to fix it. We all learn!!

:: Cathy Dodson - I too believe each student is an 'a'/excellent learner, some just need to put forth more effort or alternative strategies to reach that goal. I work really hard so students can recognize and see progress and that mistakes are where we learn and corrections are celebrated. Students must feel safe to 'try and try again' until successful. We keep all our graded work in a portfolio so we can see trends and areas that need more growth or attention. I am so glad to see this article so beautifully written, especially in a time of test mania. These articles are a great reminder that growth and the process are what are really important.

:: Carmen Gunovick - I tell my students who are afraid to answer a question out loud, "there is no trap door, no fire breathing dragons", meaning if you're wrong, you're just wrong. Nothing bad will happen and we will all learn from it. Now the kids say it to each other; it's pretty cute.

Dr. Tom Mawhinney's picture
Dr. Tom Mawhinney
Touro College professor teaching graduate education courses

The best way, in my opinion, to honor mistakes is to allow resubmits an do overs. In my graduate classes, I use all my quizzes this way. Students have two chances on every quiz. I created an online discussion board where they can talk about the problems they got wrong. Rick Wormeli has a couple of great YouTube videos on Redos, retakes, and do-overs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM-3PFfIfvI&sns=em

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Just as Dr. Mawhinney suggested, a Scottish educator from Oslo via Twitter shared with me this tip:

"In presentations I give students feedback on how to improve, then I give them a 2nd chance before they get a grade."

Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien's picture
Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien
Authors of The Straight-A Conspiracy

Thanks so much for commenting. We're glad you enjoyed the post and you've raised a really helpful issue.

In the initial stages, students tend to think that the purpose of reviewing mistakes is to learn individual concepts. As a result, if the student already knows that one concept then they're going to be bored. Ultimately though--and what we really drive home with our students--is that what needs to be done to fix this mistake is less important than the process by which we handle any mistake.

Actually, when teachers mark something wrong, they're giving incredibly specific feedback. For something to be wrong--whether it's a mistake on a math problem, a history test or a misplaced comma--it must have broken some rule or some fact. From studies of expertise, we now know that expert-level performance happens in large part because experts have simplified the rule to the stage where it's easy to use. Often, the rule as written in the textbook is very complicated for a student since it incorporates many unfamiliar or very new terms. The key is simplifying it way, way down to "what do I do" and "when do I do it" statements. Exponent rules in Algebra become as simple as adding numbers when the letters or numbers on the bottom are the same and being multiplied. Punctuation rules become about recognizing that when I have certain kinds of clauses then I put in a comma. Whatever the rule is, it has to be turned into a "recipe for action." So often students can repeat the rule but they don't know what it's telling them to do. In our book, we use Betty Crocker as the ultimate test for that sort of actionable clarity, because Betty Crocker (or rather the food scientists at General Mills) took baking and got the steps to a place where they were so clear that anybody could do them.

So, when we're workshopping mistakes with a group, it's not about that particular mistake. It's about how we use each mistake to figure out what rule we got wrong (using the textbook or some online resource) and how we then make each rule Cake-Mix Clear. That way, whatever rule students are having difficulty with they have the tools to be able clear that rule up for themselves at home.

Of course, this is for mistakes where people don't understand the concept. There are also mistakes that happen because students knew the rule but carelessly didn't follow it. That might be because they didn't show enough working or they didn't go through the process slowly enough and carefully enough to guarantee accuracy. Or maybe they're not reading in a way that allows them to understand the word problem or their assigned reading. The key, in that case, is teaching them to slow down, look up words they don't know and piece together the meaning. Rather than going through what they're reading like a cartoon character eating corn-on-the-cob, they need to approach it like a detective that uses the pieces of the passage to piece together an answer. What we call "Sherlocking." You can get a sense of what we mean with this last one by reading our free sample chapter online. If you click on this link it'll automatically download: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/s/wvie4qo3wwdfssy/Straight-A_Chapter7_...

We've found it really helpful to frame each technique with a metaphor like relating clarifying rules to Betty Crocker or reading for comprehension to Sherlock Holmes. That helps students understand that what we're really focused on is not understanding this particular concept but the whole process of how we effectively use mistakes. Whatever metaphor you choose to use with your students the key is drawing their attention to the way of dealing with mistakes rather than this one concept. Showing students how to fix a mistake is helpful. Showing students how to fix mistakes in general is really transformative.

Thanks again for reading and commenting! This was a really helpful piece of feedback!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.