Teaching Strategies

Tapping Into the Metacognition of Mistakes

Getting kids to identify and classify the types of mistakes they make gives them the tools they need to drive their own learning.

April 5, 2024
Doval / Ikon Images

Among teachers, it’s now conventional wisdom: Mistakes aren’t something to be feared, but are a crucial, even necessary, part of the learning journey.

But lumping mistakes together isn’t especially productive; it’s important to take things a step further and teach students that not all mistakes are created equal, according to veteran elementary teacher Jennifer Mangels. 

Mangels asks her students to classify the types of mistakes they commit—from sloppy procedural errors to conceptual errors—so that they become more reflective learners who can self-diagnose issues as they tackle challenging academic work on their own.

“When students take the time to find patterns in the types of mistakes they’re making, they take greater ownership of the learning process and are more willing to challenge themselves academically,” Mangels wrote in a recent ASCD article.  

This metacognitive approach requires some setup: To start, spend time explaining to students why mistakes are moments to learn from and pay close attention to, and have students self-identify some of their own errors by drawing a heart around each of them. The hearts, Mangels says, help students “reframe mistakes as expected, powerful, and celebrated parts of learning,” and also serve as visual markers students can return to in their notebooks as they learn how to classify their mistakes. 

Classification: The Taxonomy of Mistakes

Mangels teaches her students about three main hierarchies of mistakes: sloppy mistakes, “aha!” mistakes, and stretch mistakes. 

Sloppy mistakes, she says, are those that “typically happen because students are working quickly or aren’t particularly focused at the moment.” They are likely to be the most common mistakes students make in the classroom. For example, a student knows how to add up multiple sums, but does so too quickly and makes an error.

“Aha!” mistakes are those that “are unintentional but lead to a new understanding that is informative to us as learners,” Mangels said. An example would be when a student believes they’re taking the right path toward a solution, but aren’t because they don’t have all the information necessary to get there. 

For instance, a student asked to find the median in a set of numbers may understand they should focus on the number in the middle of the set, but not yet understand that if there are an even set of numbers, they must add the two middle numbers and divide them to get the correct answer. 

Stretch mistakes distinguish themselves from aha mistakes because they occur when “students are challenged because much of what they’re processing is new,” Mangels writes. These mistakes are also more expected because students “fail more when doing something completely unfamiliar.” 

Making Time for Integration 

Getting kids to do the work of reflecting on specific mistakes on their own—asking what category it belongs to, and how they can look out for it again in the future—requires more specific direction. 

To create a wider classroom culture around learning from mistakes, for example, middle school math teacher Crystal Frommert, recommends highlighting the “good mistakes” in student work—she takes photos of common mistakes in assignments and shows students her favorite before holding a group discussion to normalize and learn from common errors. This strategy works best when students are attempting to solve challenging, open-ended problems that will very likely result in stretch mistakes that require more processing, according to Mangels.

To do this in your classroom, Mangels recommends first having students attempt to solve the problem in small groups, and then present to the class “their most informative mistake” made during the problem-solving process. “Suddenly, the students are embracing breakthrough moments [together],” she said. 

Individual reflection can also help stimulate the metacognitive work of processing and learning from mistakes. While learning new material and completing practice problems, Mangels may ask students to reflect on questions like: “If you noticed several sloppy mistakes, what strategies can you use to become more accurate?” or “How did your types of mistakes change as you progressed through your work?” 

To dive a little deeper, she follows summative assessments up with review sessions: students classify their mistakes, “write a short reflection on the pattern of mistakes they noticed,” and “set a goal for themselves to continue improving,” Mangels said. 

For students who score lower on important assessments, Mangels recommends meeting individually with them to “frame their score as an opportunity to look at the details of each answer” and work together to classify each mistake and identify areas for growth. “The assessment score becomes less about a low number and more about an action plan for continued growth,” she said.  

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