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Students need to make mistakes – Here's how to learn from them

Students need to make mistakes – here’s how to learn from them

5 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Learning new things can be scary. Often, students fear failure and mistakes, and sometimes even let this get in the way of their progress.

However, failing can be a good thing. Not only are mistakes a normal part of the learning process – they can also help your students learn, under the right circumstances. So, how can you encourage your students to open themselves up to failure and, most importantly, make the most out of their mistakes?

What does the research say?

In one study, researchers showed students one word from a pair, and asked them to guess the other word. In almost all cases, students guessed wrong before being given the correct answer.

However, when tested on these pairs later, the results showed that students remembered the right answers significantly better when they had made mistakes compared to when they had not.

So, it seems that mistakes can actually induce learning – but why?

Mistakes act as clues to the correct answer

Some research proposes that making mistakes might act as a stepping-stone to eventually reaching the correct answer. Mistakes therefore act as cues to help students remember the correct information.

Recursive reminding, Reconsolidation and Prediction Error 

Recursive reminding is the idea that making mistakes allows students to remember the context in which they learnt the information or in which they incorrectly answered a similar question. In other words, the mistake acts as a cue to help students remember the context surrounding specific information, making it easier to recall.

Reconsolidation is the idea that the first step to correcting a mistake is being aware that you’re making a mistake. When students learn that their answer is incorrect, it prompts them to seek out the correct one and consolidate it in their memory.

Prediction error is the idea that learning happens when there is an inconsistency between students’ expectations and the actual outcome. For example, if students simply predict the answer to a question, then they aren’t learning anything new. Making mistakes evokes a surprise or attentional reaction, so students are likely to learn something new. 

When do mistakes help students learn?

However, saying that mistakes equal learning in all situations wouldn’t be true. So, under which conditions does it work?

Research has suggested that making mistakes is only beneficial to learning when students are producing informed mistakes, rather than just making an arbitrary guess by taking a shot in the dark.

It is also important to note that research has suggested that although making mistakes can be beneficial to student learning, being exposed to another person’s mistakes does not have this effect.

Some researchers have investigated the effect of confidence when making mistakes on learning. In these studies, participants answer a general knowledge question, and then rate how confident they are in their answer. They are then given feedback and told what the correct answer actually was. Research suggests that high-confidence mistakes are more likely to be corrected in the future.

Is making mistakes alone enough to improve learning?

Well, not quite. A mistake that isn’t corrected is unlikely to lead to effective learning.

Research suggests that giving your students the right feedback plays a big role in whether they actually learn from their mistakes. When giving feedback to your students, there are two major things to consider:

1. What type of feedback you give your students

The idea that mistakes help students learn is widely accepted, but this shouldn’t be taken for granted. Mistakes can help you learn, but only if you give students corrective feedback that they can apply to their learning.

Research suggests that making mistakes while learning results in better memory for the correct response, as long as it is followed by corrective feedback. Corrective feedback is a type of feedback that allows your students to understand whether they performed a task correctly. It should be non-judgemental, supportive, timely and specific. It is not enough to tell students whether they are right or wrong.

Research suggests that students also need to be provided with the correct answer, as well as understand and pay attention to the feedback they receive. This way, they are much more likely to remember the correct answer and improve their performance. 

2. When you give your students feedback

Giving your students feedback at the right time is key to ensuring that they pay attention and are likely to apply it to their learning.

We wish we could give you a specific timing, but research has found mixed results when looking into the optimal time to give feedback, and it depends on a number of factors. For a deeper look into this question, check out our blog: Student Feedback, Immediate or Delayed?

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How can you apply this in your classroom?

So, what does this all mean for you? Here are 3 tips to help your students learn from their mistakes more effectively.

1. Encourage informed mistakes, but not random guesses

Ensuring that you create a psychologically safe environment for your students where they feel comfortable making mistakes is essential. Remind your students that making mistakes is part of the learning process and will actually help them in the long run.

However, make sure that you are asking your students to make educated guesses when answering questions in the classroom instead of making a random guess, as this does not enhance learning.

2. Encourage students to make their own mistakes, not just listen to someone else’s

Once your students become more confident in the classroom, some may start to feel more comfortable making mistakes. This may help those students but remember that it won’t apply to the rest of the class. For students to learn from this, they need to be making their own mistakes. 

3. Give students good feedback

Good feedback is essential to correcting your students’ mistakes. Be specific and encouraging, and focus on how your students can do better next time as opposed to what they’ve done wrong. You should also provide students with the correct answer if they have answered a question incorrectly.

Final thoughts

Mistakes are not only a normal part of learning, but are actually crucial to developing true understanding of concepts and ideas. We don’t want students making mistakes for the sake of it, but if they are part of the learning (and feedback) process there is a good chance that it will help accelerate their learning.

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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