In life we accept, even expect, mistakes as part of learning new skills and attempting new tasks. We know that experiencing what does not work can be as important as understanding what does. Success rarely comes on the first, second, or other early attempts to master complex and challenging new behaviors.
Academic learning is much the same. We should expect missteps and setbacks as a natural part of the learning process. Yet there are often expectations and pressures present during academic learning that can skew the learning process, especially when it comes to making mistakes.
Mistakes in school are often seen as evidence of failure rather than symptoms of learning efforts and progress. Mistakes are to be avoided and making mistakes come with consequences rather than celebration. Mistakes are often considered to be faults to be penalized. Mistakes lead to lower grades and diminished social status.
In truth, mistakes in learning at school can lead to enhanced learning or, depending on the conditions present, can interfere with learning progress. Let’s explore three times and conditions when mistakes can build learning and three contexts when making mistakes may not contribute to learning.
Learning can accelerate when:
- Students are aware of a mistake, why it is not correct, and how to fix it. When students understand the source and nature of an error, they can make adjustments, use the experience to build understanding, and increase their focus on getting their learning correct. Analysis and understanding of what happened improves learning far more than being provided the correct answer.
- Mistakes are seen as a natural part of the learning process and are honored as ways to get better. In this context, students are more likely to see struggle and setback as part of learning, not evidence of a lack of potential. When learners see learning as creating and growing rather than compliance and following directions, they are more likely to accept errors and setbacks as building blocks for success.
- The focus is on learning, not grades. When grades are seen as the reason for learning, mistakes work against the ultimate goal. Mistakes lower grades. On the other hand, when the focus is on learning and grades are seen as nothing more than a reflection of progress, mistakes can be part of the process that leads to improvement and ultimate success.
Learning can be stifled when:
- Mistakes are the result of underlying misconceptions that go unaddressed. Finding or being provided a correct answer is of little help when confusion and misunderstanding about structures, relationships, and processes are present. In fact, unless the underlying misconception is addressed, the problem that led to a mistake can become even worse.
- Mistakes are seen as evidence of a lack of intelligence and capacity to learn. Students are less likely to take learning risks when “smart” is seen as having the right answer. Under these conditions, mistakes are seen as reasons for embarrassment and shame and are to be avoided.
- Mistakes are not accompanied by feedback or examination. When instruction moves forward and students are expected to keep up, mistakes can go unnoticed and unexamined. Further, feedback on how to correct and learn from the experience can be neglected. Consequently, the opportunity to learn from mistakes is lost.
Unfortunately, students often come to us with experiences and perceptions about learning that can work against their willingness to make and learn from mistakes in school. Our challenge is to create in our classrooms the conditions that enhance and accelerate learning. We will also need to help our students examine their attitudes toward academic mistakes and learn to leverage mistakes to make their learning more successful.