As an athlete I know that mistakes are part of how I improve. I fall when figure skating, I eat the wrong food at a dragon boat festival, I forget to put my goggles down for the first lap of a triathlon swim. These were all part of my learning process and the point was that I learned from each one of them. The approach in school and education has always been different though. I get something wrong in class and I get passed over, even made fun of by one stellar instructor. I lose marks on a test and my course grade never recovers. An episode of Ollie Lovell’s podcast Education Research Reading Room recently got me thinking about how I treat mistakes as an instructor and, while I can always make improvements, I’m happy to say that I’m at least on the right track. Rather than go into the research in this post I recommend that you listen to episode #041 with Aaron Peeters (it’s a long listen but worth it) and I’m going to talk about a few of the things that I do already, and one or two that I’m planning to build in more.
I haven’t figured out how to do this in every class but where I can I support the students in submitting corrections or revisions on their assignments/exams. This provides an opportunity to improve a grade but more importantly, my students have reported that it helps them focus on mastering the topic rather than just achieving a grade. In the long run, they improve their ability to self correct and see mistakes as part of learning instead of a hindrance to learning.
More than one try
This was a new one for me in the online space. I was able to easily set either practice or graded quizzes up for multiple attempts. Questions come from a test bank so students can’t just repeat the answers they got correct on the first go but they are able to ask questions about things they don’t understand and take another attempt without it having a negative impact on their grade. This also supports retrieval practice which shows that pulling things out of your long term memory to respond to questions supports learning.
Discuss the difficulty of learning
Learning is hard. Everyone has things that they struggle to learn, and yet we seem to glorify the idea of a natural. “They’re just good at math” is one example of these types of responses. There’s a lot going on when you’re learning both internally and externally. Sure, some people pick up some things faster than others, but that doesn’t mean that someone who is slower shouldn’t or couldn’t do it. To encourage this mentality I talk about the fact that learning is hard. I point out places where we have societally imposed views about whether or not you have to be a natural at something and I call out myself for places where I struggle to adopt this growth mindset.
Give time for thinking
I’ve been working on this one, especially in the online space but trying to give enough time for people to work through a problem before asking the class to share their responses. I try to give a set time before anyone shares their responses to give time for everyone to give a problem a go. And then I try not to just take the first correct answer and move on, which leads to…
Talking about errors
I do tend to talk about things like common errors but I think I can get better at this. We often try to figure out what went wrong in someone’s answer because that really is the only way to learn from it. But based on my understanding from the podcast episode I need to make sure that I actually use the language of errors and mistakes, which society has largely encouraged people in positions of power in education (ie teachers and parents) to not use. But by not using this language, it continues to marginalize the importance of mistakes for learning. If you dance around the fact that it’s wrong, it becomes much harder to find out why its wrong and how to do it correctly next time.
I want my students to be willing to ask for help when they need it, but nobody should be made to feel bad about mistakes. “To err is human.” This is something that I truly take to heart, if I didn’t I would be a lot more ticked about some of the medical sagas I’ve had in my life. I firmly believe that we need to normalize making mistakes if we want all to feel comfortable acknowledging that they were wrong. And given the challenges that the world has ahead of it, I think it’s time we all sat with being wrong a little bit more.