I write regularly about the value of making mistakes and the potential of learning from them. No, I’m not advocating making mistakes on purpose; most of us slip up plenty without prior planning. The problem is how mistakes make us feel and how those feelings motivate efforts to avoid further blunders. When we draw big negative conclusions from mistakes, we’re not likely to devote time trying to learn from them.
Almost all of us are mistake avoidant, but that’s especially true of our students. Unfortunately, their educational experiences across the years have had a hand in making them anxious about errors. Teachers ask questions to find out whether students know answers. Teachers grade students’ knowledge and skills. They take off points for minor mistakes and make assessments that open and close career doors for students. Errors, mistakes, and failures have consequences, and some of them are harmful in courses, college, and life.
It’s not nice to make a mistake in private, but it’s more onerous to commit the error in public. This summer I accidently crashed a socially distant line for produce at the farmer’s market. I was loudly and rudely called out for it in front of at least 20 people. I objected to the rudeness and was further admonished by at least three others in the line. I suspect I felt and looked just like students look when they’re called out and sometimes put down for a wrong answer in class.
But most mistakes are not harmful or life threatening, and when we respond as if they were, we miss those valuable learning opportunities. How, then, do we get students (and sometimes ourselves) to differentiate between harmful mistakes and those ripe with learning potential?
Here’s a strategy that holds promise: students listen to a presentation and then are given set of statements, one at a time, each containing wrong information. Working individually, students have three minutes to identify the error and correct it. They may consult their notes and the text. In the study (Bobby et al., 2019), the control cohort was given a set of correct answers and time to review them. Subsequently, both groups were tested on the content. Not surprisingly, regardless of students’ achievement level, correcting the error statements resulted in higher scores (at statistically significant levels) than studying the correct statements. In an earlier study the same result occurred when students corrected the errors in a group discussion setting (Bobby et al., 2014).
Part of the appeal of this approach is that students are not correcting mistakes they have made. That takes away the emotional reactions to error and enables students to focus solely on correcting the mistake. If we let students experience both of these research conditions, they might glean firsthand evidence that dealing with errors promotes learning. The approach also has strength because it’s students who are doing the correcting, not the teacher. Teachers can get into the habit of always (or at least regularly) correcting student mistakes, which does protect the content, but students need to learn how to correct their own errors. Correcting your own mistakes involves a process of asking questions, considering options, ruling some out, and finally arriving at the right or better answer. It’s a process not learned without practice. Content integrity can be maintained with a whole-class discussion of errors and their correction.
The downside of the approach is generating the incorrect statements. The study’s authors, teachers who used this approach, describe statement preparation as “crucial.” The statements should be “neither too difficult nor boring for students . . . if the introduction of errors is not done properly, it may become counterproductive” (p. 478). Incorrect statements may be easier to generate when the content has right answers. But teachers can also prepare less-than-accurate statements with the task being improvement of the solution, answer, idea, or theory contained in the statement.
Correcting mistakes replaces the angst of being wrong with the joy of new learning.
Bobby, Z., Nandeesha, H., Sridhar, M. G., Soundravally, R., Setiya, S., Babu, M. S., & Niranjan, G. (2014). Identification of mistakes and their correct by small group discussion as a revision exercise at the end of a teaching module in biochemistry. The National Medical Journal of India, 27(1), 22–23.
Bobby, Z., Radhika, M. R., Srilatha, K. Kumar, U. N., & Kavitha, S. (2019). Individual identification in statements of biochemical significance: An effective learning process for graduate medical students. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 47(4), 476–480. https://doi.org/10.1002/bmb.21241
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