Students Learning through Mistakes

Michelle Bouslog
Michelle Bouslog
EdTech teacher; M.A.Ed. in EdTech, Concordia University St. Paul, MN
Files folders together with one labeled ‘Mistake’.

Nobody enjoys making mistakes. Whether you are playing chess, attempting a game winning free throw, making a critical medical decision, or answering questions on the MAP test, the only result you want is the favorable one. Yet mistakes inevitably happen and do so throughout every stage of our lives. How do we teach students that mistakes can be a valuable part of the learning process? Below are reasons why mistakes are necessary, as well as strategies for guiding students’ learning through the mistakes they make.

Why is it Valuable for Students to Learn from Mistakes?

Psychologist Janet Metcalfe of the University of Columbia wrote a research paper presenting evidence that avoiding and ignoring mistakes at school can disadvantage children. They benefit from making mistakes and learning how to correct them, as opposed to avoiding mistakes altogether (Learning from Errors).

When a student makes a mistake, analyzing how and why they came to that answer will help them make fewer mistakes with similar problems in the future. If a student misses a two digit subtraction question, why was the answer wrong? Did they forget to regroup? Show them where their problem began to go wrong. If you miss that aforementioned game winning free throw, why was it? Did you follow through crooked or take your eyes off the basket? Knowing how and why you made the mistake will teach you how to avoid that in the future. Continue reading for more specific strategies you can use to help students learn from their mistakes.

Strategies for Student Learning through Mistakes

Teaching Students to Implement Feedback

It is important to give students feedback on their mistakes (and their successes); but what is even more critical for growth is showing them how to use your feedback. To start, give feedback in a timely manner while their work is still fresh in their heads. This will help students remember what they did and see where they can better their work.

Additionally, feedback should not only be given at the end of a lesson/assignment, but during the lesson/assignment as well.  By circling the classroom, meeting with small groups, or stopping students to reiterate the objective of their assignment can help them catch a mistake and make improvements as they go. When possible, write down feedback somewhere where students can easily access it (a sticky notebook, the cover of their journal, etc). This will help ensure that your feedback stays on the forefront of their minds.

Give Constructive Feedback

In order to give constructive feedback, students need to feel safe and comfortable with you. They need to know you aren’t attacking them or making them feel bad, but rather you are there to help them because you care. Use proactive language that is encouraging and constructive. Avoid saying things like “This is what you should have done…” Try to start with a compliment such as, “I really like what you were doing here. Now how about adding something that…” This helps students feel confident in their work and encouraged to make the needed adjustments.

Practice Peer Critiques

Peer critiques can help students learn to appreciate others’ work and learn from their own. It gives them the power and confidence to feel like their suggestions and opinions matter. When teaching students how to provide feedback, remind them to be kind. All comments should focus on the work and not on the person. Teach them to start with a compliment and then follow with a suggestion for improvement.

Comments should also be very specific, “I love the length of your paper! I noticed you forgot some punctuation. Try rereading and see where you could add some commas.” If a particular student has many things they need to improve upon, have the critiquer stick to two or three. Giving more than that can feel very overwhelming and deter the student from making any corrections at all.

The Value of Taking Risks

Taking risks sets up opportunities for growth and learning beyond what one already knows or feels comfortable with. When children take risks in a safe environment, they have the opportunity to either grow confidence or be comforted when they fall short. When a risk is presented, children have to analyze if the risk is worth the reward. Will it be worth it to ride my bike down the steep hill? It’s pretty high but would be really fun! Or in school, will raising my hand to answer a difficult question be worth how I’ll feel if I get it right, or be too embarrassing if I get it wrong?

These decision making and self-regulation skills are attributes that will carry into adulthood. By teaching children it’s okay to take risks in a safe and supportive environment, they will learn that mistakes and shortcomings are just another step toward eventual mastery.

Making mistakes is not all that enjoyable whether you are 5 or 105. Yet mistakes do and will inevitably happen. As educators, we should commit to helping students examine, explore, and analyze their mistakes during the learning process in order to open themselves up to growth. By teaching students that their shortcomings are just another step on the road to success, they will be able to get through them with the confidence that they haven’t failed, they just aren’t there yet.

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