Most people have heard the sayings “You learn from your mistakes,” “Adversity is the school of wisdom,” or are admonished to ‘fail forward.’ Meanwhile, it is a general consensus that making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. This is because if instead of giving up in frustration after making a mistake, we work constructively to understand the mistake, the strategy to solve the problem stays with us better than if we just memorize the solution.
Despite this, in our educational system, mistakes are more often punished than seen as an opportunity to learn. What then can we do to help our students learn from their mistakes? First, let’s take a look at how mistakes can stimulate the learning process.
1. See mistakes as a source of understanding
When students are mindful of incorrect solution concepts while working on a problem, they are able to deal with the problem at a much deeper level than someone who is just presented with the correct solution and has to memorize it. Also, we should not just correct a mistake but make sure that students recognize and understand the reason for the mistake.
Only in this way can students arrive at a deeper understanding and correct solution method for the mistake
2. Improve motivation and self-esteem by responding to and overcoming mistakes
A student who successfully fixes something incorrect experiences personal success. They experience directly how worthwhile their effort is and how their competence improves. Such an experience of success leads to the student being more persistent and putting in even more effort in the future when working on reaching a learning goal because they know that they can achieve it.
This is how to turn the motivation to learn into something intrinsic, which can be much more effective than incentivizing good grades for example.
3. Honor mistakes as guidance for the teacher, too
Wrong is just wrong? Wrong! Mistakes are multifaceted. They give the teacher information about the stand of the individual student and which incorrect ideas and knowledge deficits the student has hinder learning. Mistakes also show you whether the student understands the required prerequisites and how you can optimally connect the previous topics to the current topic in the classroom.
Mistakes give you, as the teacher, an important foundation for the lesson structure and individual student development. If they’re learned from and responded to, mistakes are powerfully good! But which prerequisites have to be met so that mistakes lead to learning success and not to a dead-end?
4. Allow mistakes through the learning atmosphere
So students can learn from their mistakes, they must be allowed to make them! It should be clear to students that in a learning situation mistakes will be handled in a different way than in a performance evaluation where every mistake has a negative consequence. Also, create a mistake-friendly learning atmosphere where students don’t feel ashamed of their mistakes. Motivate your students to not give up and to continue to work on the correct solution. In this way, the reward for learning remains the focus and a constructive way of dealing with mistakes is an important foundation of this.
5. Allow a variety of mistakes
Students should not only be allowed to make mistakes, but they need to be able to make them. Here the type of learning material plays a decisive role. Enable situations where your students can make a variety of interesting mistakes. In most cases, just asking for the answer or using multiple-choice questions will not give you any insight into the reasons for your student’s mistakes.
6. Provide timely feedback so mistakes can be responded to
If a problem with understanding is recognized late in the learning process and a lot of time has elapsed before the student discovers they must re-learn the topic, the incorrect thought processes may be firmly cemented in the student’s mind. The learning process usually follows these steps in this order: practice activities, make errors, get feedback, think over the feedback, and try again.
The less this process is interrupted the more efficient and effective the learning is. The earlier a problem is discovered the easier it is to fix it. In the ideal scenario, a student will receive feedback on how close they are in terms of correctness immediately after giving their solution.
7. Analyze root causes and sources
There are different kinds of mistakes. Careless mistakes, systematic mistakes, misconceptions – the root cause of mistakes can have many sources. It is not enough that students know that they have made a mistake; they also need to receive feedback on where the mistake lies. This root cause analysis in connection with targeted individual support is the best way to change thought patterns and prevent students from making the same mistake again.
8. Encourage independent mistake correction as a matter of habit
Giving students the opportunity to find and correct their mistakes on their own immediately after they are made has a positive impact on their motivation to learn. At the same time, learning to look for root causes and sources of mistakes develops conceptual understanding.
For example, in mathematics, students often just learn solution methods for problems by rote rather than actually understanding the concept. However, when students look for the source of mistakes on their own, they realize the cause and improve their understanding independently. Things learned in this way are retained longer and are more easily applied to other mathematical topics.
If you want to help your students turn their mistakes into learning success in the best possible way, there are a number of challenges:
How can you keep an eye on all students individually?
How much effort must be put into the mistake analysis?
How can you give all students individual feedback?
How do you provide timely feedback?
9. Use technology that supports mistakes and personalized mistake analysis
We quickly reach our limits when we try to do justice to all the mistakes of all our students. Educational software can give some relief if it is able to analyze everything the student enters and give them direct feedback on their answer. In turn, you as the teacher should automatically get analyses on the strengths and weaknesses of your students.
There are hundreds if not thousands of educational software and platforms to choose from. To assist you in evaluating whether a technology supports you and your students in learning from mistakes we have created this checklist of requirements:
Does the program allow any kind of answer to be entered, or is it just multiple choice – can a student make a variety of mistakes?
Are there interactive input tools that are modeled after analog learning materials, for example a compass or protractor?
Is feedback given immediately after entering an answer?
Does the student receive customized individual feedback with explanations?
Does the technology recognize recurring mistakes as knowledge gaps?
As a teacher, do you receive an analysis of the learning progress and mistakes of each of your students individually?
We’d be really, really, really grateful if you could take a look at our adaptive math platform and give us feedback. It’s a free one year trial with no strings. We want to make the best product we can, and need your help yo get it just right.
9 Ways To Help Students Learn Through Mistakes; adapted image attribution flickr user vancouverfilmschools