Brain-Based Learning

Guiding Students to Harness Mistakes for Learning

With practice and an eventual shift in mindset, students can understand that mistakes are fundamental to how we learn.

May 24, 2024
Chris Gash / The iSpot

As students begin to build the skills they desire, such as solving early puzzles or making circles instead of scribbles, they often experience the frustration of not doing it “right.” Even when we assure them that there is no right or wrong when starting out, or that with practice they'll get better and better, many still suffer distress.

Students often have misunderstandings about mistakes. They may think that speed in comprehension represents knowledge or that mistakes are a sign of lesser intelligence.

For many students in school, their greatest fear is to make a mistake in front of their classmates and suffer a self-imposed humiliation. Let them know that all their classmates have the same fears. Help them understand that setbacks provide opportunities for them to revise their brains’ inaccurate memory circuits, which, if uncorrected, could impede future understanding. Working through periods of confusion strengthens the correct durable networks their brains ultimately construct. Allowing students to make mistakes and correct them with a positive attitude builds their understanding and solidifies accurate learning connections.

An error recognized in homework, tests, or class participation may be disappointing, but with timely feedback and opportunities to build accurate memory, their brains rewire neural pathways with the faulty information and will avoid the same mistake next time.

Judy Willis

Help students persevere through mistakes

Learning is a process of going from the unknown to the known and involves detours through uncertainty and mistakes. By encouraging students to think beyond single approaches and giving them opportunities to make decisions and mistakes, you help them build perseverance and mistake tolerance.

Once students have accomplished goals, reminding them of how they overcame challenges boosts their perseverance after mistakes. Help them recall the experiences when with effort and practice, they made fewer mistakes and enjoyed the pleasure of success. For example, “Remember when you were learning to play soccer and you kept trying even though you felt like giving up?” “Think back to when you struggled to play basic chords on the guitar, and now you have mastered so many!” “Do you remember how your first attempts to write were challenging and now it’s easy for you?” 

You can also promote opportunities for students to take the risk of making mistakes when you provide examples of people they admire, who have described their own struggles with mistakes. As Michael Jordan has said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

You expand perseverance and understanding with questions that have more than one correct answer. Try extending your wait time—don’t give the answers to their questions before all students have enough time to really consider the question and predict possible answers. Ask students questions where they need to explain their reasons and consider alternative or additional solutions.

Utilize Class Discussions

The power of peers is harnessed when you promote class discussions about mistakes. Start by describing some whopper mistakes that you’ve made and how your life went on even after these big mistakes. Invite students to share mistakes they made in the past and how they felt and reacted. Ask them what they would do differently now confronting similar issues.

Students can discuss examples such as these:

  • Sending a text message or media posting without considering all possible outcomes
  • Judging people too quickly from appearances or initial interactions
  • Making preventable mistakes by starting an assignment before reading all the instructions
  • Rushing through reading and finding they don’t remember what they read
  • Choosing the first multiple-choice answer that seems right without looking at the other options that really included the most correct response 

Knowing that their peers have had similar experiences can help students feel less shame about mistakes—everyone makes them, and it’s OK.

Learning from mistakes leads to discovery

When “learning” is errorless and effortless, the acquisition of new knowledge is limited. To be true learners, students need opportunities to construct their understanding, in addition to making and revising mistakes along the way. 

Explain to students how learning from mistakes—understanding where they made the mistake—is powerful cement for their brains to construct the correct understanding and solutions. For example, an error recognized in homework, tests, or class participation may be disappointing, but with timely feedback and opportunities to build accurate memory, their brains rewire neural pathways with the faulty information and will avoid the same mistake next time.

This is because the brain has a system that promotes accurate and strong memories in response to mistakes, enhanced by timely feedback. Called the nucleus accumbens or reward center, this storage house of dopamine responds when making predictions, choices, or answers to questions. Through the nucleus accumbens, dopamine is released from its storage area, resulting in the cementing of accurate predictions and the opportunity to revise incorrect ones. 

This reward center is always sending a baseline flow of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex—the region where stored memories are assembled to solve a problem, answer a new question, or make a decision. When the nucleus accumbens gets timely feedback that a correct prediction (answer, choice, decision) was made, there is extra dopamine flow to that memory consolidation network in the prefrontal cortex. The resulting satisfying pleasure reinforces the network of stored memories that guided that correct prediction. When errors occur, the flow of dopamine drops, and the brain seeks to prevent that drop in the future. Thus, with timely corrective feedback, the drop in dopamine triggers the construction of more accurate memory circuits. 

Students Will See Mistakes as Opportunities

Learning from their mistakes now will help your students evolve into future learners perceiving problems as opportunities and help them to have perseverance to exceed the status quo. As they build mistake tolerance and tenacity through setbacks, they’ll view mistakes as opportunities that increase understanding and skills rather than as indicators of failure.

By building their power of perseverance through their inevitable setbacks, errors, and mistakes, you’ll help your students develop the blueprints needed to confidently manage and flourish through future challenges, solve new problems, and become creative innovators.

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Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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