Making Room for Error

Creating an Error-Rich Environment for Learning

To develop as thinkers, students need to wrestle with ambiguity, attempt to solve intractable problems, and grow more comfortable with a learning process that includes struggle. Unfortunately, many of our students have been conditioned by their prior learning experiences to fear failure and to avoid revealing ignorance. They may have felt punished or shamed for errors or confusion; unsurprisingly, this tends to inhibit the playful, experimental approach to learning that would allow them to take pleasure in exploration, to relish intellectual risks, and even to do their own reasoning.

Mistakes are an essential part of learning. As James Zull (2011) warns, fear of error 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.” Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel explain that “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.”

So how do we help students learn to be more comfortable with error and failure? It helps to normalize struggle. If you’re willing to discuss your own past (or current) learning challenges, you can help students believe that failure is an everyday part of the path to success. (This cv of failure, or a similar example, might also be fun to share. Let us know if you’d like to share your own!) A former department chair we know reveals to students in his intro class that he failed his first exam in that course as a freshman; another colleague offers extra points to students who catch his (possibly intentional? Or possibly not) calculus errors. Some faculty celebrate the sorts of errors that arise when students are thinking and making connections, by regularly sharing a “favorite mistake.” A Physics professor we admire asks his students, each week, to identify the concept that’s still most confusing for them, and explain why. Others ask students to blunder intentionally. The semester project in one colleague’s class is a “Failure Club”: On the first day, he asks students to try something they’ve always wanted to do, but have been afraid to try—maybe even something impossible. They don’t have to succeed, but they have all semester to reflect on what they learn by striving.

It’s also important that we establish trust in our classrooms. Students need to know that their instructor is their ally, the classroom environment is supportive, and the invitation to make mistakes isn’t a trick, so they won’t be penalized. Instead, opportunities to learn from error are part of the course design. Ann Sobel’s (2014) Chronicle piece offers additional suggestions for constructing supportive spaces where learning and risk-taking can flourish. For example, in some cases, she will reframe what counts as success, evaluating students on how well they prepared for an exercise and how well they work as a team, as opposed to grading a product of their preparation or group work. She also emphasizes the importance of giving feedback first: “We often expect students to know exactly what to do when they turn in papers or projects, and we downgrade them if they don’t,” she explains. Instead, we must provide clear expectations, and when possible, allow students to revise or refine their work based on our feedback.

After all, we know that skill development doesn’t happen in a single attempt at a complex task. It happens through trial and error, through practice, feedback, and revision.

If you’d like to consider how grading affects students’ perception of error, and get fresh ideas for grading differently, there are a few spots left in our upcoming reading group on the book Grading for Equity. You can see more information and register here. We look forward to working with you!