Encouraging Error

Why are we, and our students, so distressed by their mistakes? Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) attribute education’s fixation with correctness to B.F. Skinner, who—convinced that mistakes result from poor instruction– advocated “errorless learning” methods.

But neuroscience tells us that Skinner was… mistaken.

Mistakes are an essential part of learning. James Zull (2011) warns that the quest for errorless learning sabotages our students’ ability to learn. It “turns the focus from learning and understanding to fear, tension, and crisis. It produces the primitive fear and tension of the primal brain rather than the joy found in growth, freedom, and development of the mind,” he explains (p. 73). “Particularly in formal education, we may think that mistakes are bad and should be avoided, but…a ‘mistake rich’ environment is preferable,” Zull concludes. “It produces a better education and leads to more insight.”

You might be concerned that students will learn the errors, but research shows that as long as learners are given corrective feedback, they benefit enormously from the opportunity to puzzle through a problem or question and learn from their mistakes. As Make it Stick puts it, “People who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery.”

Video games offer a vivid example of the power of error. Nobody expects to conquer on the first try: that would make for a terrible game. Mistakes are an integral part of the experience, and people of all ages become absorbed, determined to move from level to level, developing mastery along the way, and fostering a growth mindset.

So how might you cultivate a mistake-rich environment in your class? Ann Sobel’s (2014) Chronicle piece offers great suggestions for constructing safe and supportive spaces where learning and risk can flourish.

If you’d like to work more on helping your students learn from their mistakes, we’re happy to help. Please get in touch at pro-teaching@fsu.edu with all your teaching questions, or to RSVP for the upcoming Exam Design Institute (November 7 and 14, from 2:00-4:00) or the Faculty Learning Community for Instructors of Large Classes.