Make More Mistakes!

Mistakes literally make learning easier.

I love this idea and wondered how to get students to make more mistakes. The beauty of the answers I’ve found is that classrooms where students feel freer to make mistakes also promote learning in other ways (e.g., encourage critical thinking). Here are a few ideas to get you started.

* Make the space safe. One way is to reduce anonymity. I was surprised when the twelve students in my advanced course said they didn’t know each other. I just assumed a small class of majors would at least know each other’s names. I was wrong. Do invest time in helping students get acquainted. Pair-and-share activities and a request to please-sit-in-a-new-location contribute to community even in a lecture-based course.

*I used to struggle over what to say when a student gave me a wrong answer and that made me reluctant to ask questions in a large lecture group. Now I regularly ask students responding to a question (whether they are right or wrong) to make their thinking explicit. I use phrases like “tell me more,” “show me the text that leads you to that conclusion,” or “can you explain your reasoning.” This approach often exposes the misunderstanding behind the wrong answer. That gives me a chance to support the student with statements like “oh, I see why you think that, but what if I tell you … .” Sometimes the student catches her error as she articulates a response.

*Give students chances to make mistakes, get feedback and correct their work when the stakes are relatively low. Quizzes, drafts, and having portions of projects due before a final deadline certainly give feedback in preparation for exams, papers, and semester-long projects. But grading is burdensome and adding more assignments is not a practical approach to providing more feedback. I’ve learned that feedback doesn’t necessarily mean more grading. For instance, I ask students to interpret a graph or ask them to sort a list of ideas/terms into categories. Students can discuss with their neighbors for one type of check or be directed to a passage in a text for another type. The definitive feedback comes when I project or discuss the answers in class and they do a self-check. They get to make mistakes. I don’t have to grade.

*Praise students for their hard work rather than being smart. Research shows that people who believe intelligence is something you either have or don’t have (I’m good at writing but I suck at math) are less likely to take risks for fear of appearing dumb. In contrast, students that believe intelligence is changeable and that hard work can improve their performance are more likely to try something new, are more persistent in the face of difficulties, and are more likely to accept mistakes as a part of the learning process.

*Explicitly discuss alternative answers. I’ve become much more likely to ask questions like: “How might someone get this wrong?” “Where do you think people have difficulty with this idea?” “Why isn’t xxx the answer?“ “Does the answer change if I’m a man or I’m gay or I am from another country?” This helps students see that a right answer isn’t always obvious, that sometimes there is more than one right answer, and that some answers depend on context.

*Talk explicitly about your own response to mistakes. For instance, I have shown a difficult passage and said: “When I first read this, I found xyz difficult to understand. I decided it might mean abc but when I read further, that didn’t make sense. At that point I reread from the beginning and looked at the diagram. After struggling a bit I saw how things fit together.” Students often find it a relief that we struggle too.

*Make students aware of their own learning processes. I now point out that the uneasiness they feel having made a mistake is a signal that they are onto something new or that a piece of the intellectual puzzle is missing. If they learn to recognize and tolerate those feelings, they will become better learners.

The classrooms I experienced as a student didn’t look much like what I’ve described above. Making changes in my teaching has happened gradually and I’ve certainly had the “Ohh –that wasn’t supposed to happen” moment in class! I have to work to not fall into old habits and to practice what I preach, but the reward of engaging students at deeper levels outweighs my discomforts. And, I am indeed learning from my mistakes! I can even say I’m enjoying it.

Resources: To explore these ideas further, you might enjoy: How People Learn (2000, National Research Council) (available free at the National Academies Press website) and The Art of Changing the Brain (2002, J. Zull). Web searches on ‘malleable intelligence’, and ‘providing student feedback’ identify various additional resources.

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