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4 tips to help students learn from their mistakes

4 tips to help students learn from mistakes

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Making mistakes is part of the learning process. Failure can be a great way for students to learn where they went wrong, and can help them to apply feedback to their learning in the future.

But they can be a disparity between this and the actual experience of failure in schools. We wanted to explore what the research suggests teachers and students really think about making mistakes and learning from them.

What does the research say?

Some learners might not be aware of the benefits of learning from their mistakes. If this is the case, some students may be avoiding making mistakes at all costs. This can actually hinder learning, as mistakes can be an opportunity for good feedback for students about the task at hand.

Researchers have investigated students’ and teachers’ awareness of the benefits of making mistakes. To do this, they asked students and teachers about their attitudes and beliefs surrounding learning from errors by asking them whether they believed that making mistakes helps or hinders learning. Researchers also asked how they normally react to making mistakes, how often they make mistakes, and their attitudes towards feedback.

The results showed that around 90% of students report analysing their mistakes to try to learn from them. Even though most students recognised that they learn more from making mistakes than from giving correct answers, and that making mistakes is part of the learning process, 91% of students still believe that it is important to avoid making mistakes.

On the other hand, only 9% of teachers believed that making mistakes should be avoided. Overall, they believed that making mistakes is not necessarily a sign of bad teaching or an unsuccessful student. Instead, they usually have a positive view of mistakes made in their classroom.

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So, what does this mean for you?

This research shows the disconnect between students being aware of how mistakes could be beneficial and the lengths they go to avoid making them. This may be because of the stigma associated with “failure”, or the desire to avoid “looking dumb” in front of their peers.

If students will inevitably make mistakes in your classroom, what is the best way for you to support them when this happens? Here are some tips to help your students make the most out of their mistakes, and use their failures to their advantage…

1. Give your students appropriate feedback

Feedback that is about the process, their self-regulation or the task will probably be more beneficial than feedback about their traits. Likewise, avoiding vague or general terms, in favour of specific and targeted comments will also help remove any doubt and ambiguity. This should help accelerate the learning process. You can read more about how to give your students better feedback here.

2. Give your students feedback at the right time

Research suggests that 80% of students prefer receiving feedback immediately after a task, even though this only happens around 27% of the time – but student preference isn’t the only thing to take into account.

In order to decide when is the right time to give your students feedback, consider if the task they completed is longer or shorter.

  • If the task is shorter, give your students feedback immediately. Shorter tasks are usually simpler, and so feedback on these can be processed more automatically.
  • If the task is longer, provide feedback between the next day to a week later. Longer tasks are usually more complex, so feedback may be more detailed and will require more effort to process.

3. Encourage self-reflection 

Encourage you students to think about the mistakes they made. One great way to prompt them to do this is by getting them to ask themselves: “what would I do differently next time?”

Doing this will give them a sense of control over the situation, which will help boost their confidence when doing the task again in the future. Self-reflecting will also get your students to think about the feedback they received, further consolidating it as a great way to learn from their mistakes.

4. Remind you students that the best place to make mistakes is in the classroom

Creating a psychologically safe environment where your students feel comfortable and confident making mistakes is vital to their self-esteem and their learning. This isn’t about creating an environment that promotes failing or mistakes, but one that reduces the fear of failure, so that if mistakes do happen, students feel comfortable addressing and learning from them.

Final thoughts

Making mistakes and learning from them is the key to your students’ academic development. The research shows that making your students aware of the benefits of making mistakes alone is not enough to facilitate learning. As well as this, we have to give them feedback to ensure they learn from it, as well as creating an environment that allows them to acknowledge their mistakes and improve because of it.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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