How Students Learn from Mistakes in School

Students often measure their intelligence and success in school by test scores and homework grades. One factor for the creation of this mindset has likely come out of the highly debated and commonly used educational approach of “teaching to the test,” which causes teachers to feel pressured to bring up their students’ grades on major exams. This has only added to the idea that grades are the be-all, end-all measure of a student’s success.

But many are coming forward with the idea that this approach is actually harmful to students’ learning. They assert that students actually need to make mistakes in order to better learn material. So instead of chastising kids for getting a bad grade, parents and teachers should be breaking down the mistakes they made in order to help students learn from them. Edutopia asserts, “to help your students rethink mistakes, help them be specific about their errors. Knowing that answer #3 is wrong doesn’t mean much. Knowing that they didn’t understand mitosis gives them a mandate for getting better.”

Research by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork at U.C.L.A finds that people remember information better when they’ve attempted to answer a question and failed as opposed to simply studying.

Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien compare the idea of ignoring mistakes to a musician practicing:

“Picture a classical violinist rehearsing. He or she would not play a new piece start-to-finish, fudging through tricky sections and trying to “be done.” That musician stops in trouble spots, figures them out, and then plays that measure over and over again, and only moves on when it’s perfect. The same principle applies to schoolwork.”

This issue brings up the question of whether or not praising children for being smart is beneficial—as opposed to praising them for their hard work. It’s been found that children who see their intelligence as innate may become more frustrated in the face of failure, causing them to avoid challenges. A study found that people who see intelligence as malleable are more likely to learn from their mistakes and perform better in the future.

It can be difficult for children to view their mistakes as positive. Edutopia points out that “students don’t think about their mistakes rationally—they think about them emotionally.” Kids are so afraid of failing that their reaction to a bad grade can be detrimental. This is why it’s important for parents not to overreact when their student brings home a bad grade. Remaining calm and going through their mistakes will help them know that a bad grade doesn’t mean they’re not smart and that hard work is essential for success.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D has some great tips about helping kids learn from their mistakes—both inside and outside the classroom. These include praising them for their ability to make mistakes, acknowledging that you don’t expect them to be perfect, and focusing on the solution to a problem instead of masking it.

Learning how to handle mistakes is not just a good lesson for children inside the classroom. It’s a valuable skill that everyone needs in life—and the sooner kids learn that everyone makes mistakes and it’s not the end of the world, the better equipped they will be to handle the hurdles that life will throw at them.

Image credit: EdMilson de Lima / CC BY 2.0

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