You're Invited to a Celebration of Mistakes!

April 20, 2014

“Learning from mistakes is probably the most familiar form of learning for every human being. Every time we make a mistake, i.e., we suffer from an inconvenience due to our behavior, we try to modify our knowledge about the world in order to avoid suffering again in the future for the same reason.“

-Giordana & Serra, 2001

Mistakes. They can plague, haunt, follow, inhibit, free, and debilitate. They can also serve as incredible and profound opportunities for learning. Yet, we operate in an educational tradition that encourages the elimination of mistakes, to the extent that some actually fear them, and this does not reflect a practical approach to learning how to learn from and overcome mistakes in all aspects of our students lives. If learning from mistakes is such a natural phenomena, and can be so effective, what happens when our classroom models for learning penalize mistakes and create an environment where students are explicitly, or implicitly, told they are to avoid making a mistake, any mistake, at virtually all costs? Instead of an environment where we “catch students doing things wrong,” perhaps we should consider fostering an environment where, as Michael O’Hare in GSPP likes to say, we “catch students doing thing right!”

If our focus is solely on the outcome of and not the learning process itself, then we lose sight of these teachable moments. These are critical junctures where we can help a student overcome a mistake and flourish, or allow them to become beaten down by it to a point of submission and apathy towards the problem, or worse, the field as a whole. In the most general sense, it means designing a course that offers students multiple opportunities to engage in formative assessments with corrective or prescriptive directions on how to change course and learn from any mistakes made. Even summative assessments can serve formative functions that acknowledge mistakes as a learning opportunity, not simply a deficit. For just one great example, see how Bob Jacobsen (Physics) reviews midterms with his classes.

-      How do we shift from a focus on eliminating mistakes through negative reinforcement to one that celebrates mistakes as opportunities for intervention, reflection, metacognition, analysis, and learning?

-      How can we celebrate, encourage and reward mistakes if our students demonstrate they have learned from the experience?

-      How many times in your course are students given the chance to make a mistake and then demonstrate they have learned from it as a measure of learning and success?

Every student will make mistakes in the learning process – it is inevitable. Mistakes could be made in the execution of fundamental skills, decision-making, or simply bad luck. Having the opportunity within a course for students to recognize, reflect, and learn from mistakes can be made possible through several formative pedagogical strategies. Some could be new additions to your teaching repertoire; others may only necessitate slight design adaptations.

Here are five ways to celebrate mistakes in your course (and have students recognize them, reflect on them, and learn from them):

1. Build an iterative process into any project or writing assignment.Group projects could be broken into smaller sub-projects or sections that are evaluated and feedback given at several stages. Teach a class of 600? Utilize peer evaluation and have groups provide each other feedback based on a rubric you provide, and simply have them email their feedback report to both the group evaluated and to you/your GSI’s who can quickly review for any glaring issues. The process otherwise takes care of itself and students get the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes, and view the assignment through your lens as reviewer which can be very insightful for them.

Papers offer an easy transition, if you think about either breaking them down into sections, or drafts. Either way, break down that single big paper into opportunities for check-ins on development over a period of time. It’s a deliberate way to show students that writing is a process of revisions and multiple drafts – telling them that is one thing, showing them why through experiencing the process is another. About writing and drafts, noted Bay Area author Anne Lamott says, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

2. Give several short exams/quizzes that are cumulative instead of a single midterm and final exam.

Regardless of the reduced stress from offering multiple low stakes exams, which tends to be more productive for learning, we have some recent research that offers compelling evidence to rethink how we approach testing. If you ever thought that the midterm and final model is effective for long-term retention, consider what Karpicke and Roediger found in their Science article “The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning.” Essentially, they show that while learning is often considered complete when a student can produce the correct answer to a question, in fact, repeated studying after learning has no effect on delayed recall, but repeated testing produces a large positive effect. And guess what else they found, students' predictions of their performance were uncorrelated with actual performance. As the authors tell us, “The results demonstrate the critical role of retrieval practice in consolidating learning and show that even university students seem unaware of this fact.”

3. Let the class correct themselves.

Ask a question in class, solicit responses, let the class see the responses, have one student for each response given explain their reasoning, let the class vote again. The ensuing discussion can be quite brief, but the point is to not just find the right answer, but to understand whythe decision to choose the others was wrong. This has been fairly common practice amongst those who typically use clickers in the classroom. It’s easy to do with clickers and just as easy in smaller classes where clickers aren’t so necessary.

4. Purposefully make errors of any kind in your lecture and encourage students to see if they can catch them—make a game of it.

Ole Hald (Mathematics) does this in undergraduate courses, explaining in his DTA teaching statement, “I keep [students] involved by insisting that they help me perform routine calculations. And students delight in catching my mistakes.”

5. Capitalize on intrinsic motivation for learning by encouraging mistakes early that will be addressed across the course to answer interesting and novel questions or problems.

Early in the semester, give your students something (it can be ungraded or part of a participation grade) that they will be able to do by the end of the semester, but can’t yet. Let them attempt it with reckless abandon, but make sure to make it something very relevant, applied, and well… interesting. What sparks your interest about what one can do with the knowledge and experience of the course? Use that as a guide to inform what will spark theirs as well. The point is to gloriously fail at something they would genuinely like to do. If they know the course will enable them to do it, then you have lit a fire under them to correct those mistakes, to answer the question, or solve the problem. Then, use the early assignment as a reference point for the course; allude to it, and how the content being discussed at this time will contribute to finding the answer or solving the problem of that early assignment puzzle. Finally, have them complete the assignment or task again at the end of the semester… You can imagine the outcome.

    Ultimately, we all have a great deal to learn from our mistakes. When students make them, they open up a rarely utilized space to teach in the most active, just-in-time sense. Mistakes can teach our students how to think about and pay attention to execution of fundamentals. Mistakes can teach our students how to metacognate about the process through which we make decisions. Mistakes provide opportunities to learn humility, responsibility, forgiveness and accountability. Learning to effectively deal with, make meaning of, identify causes for, and move past mistakes builds character. And then there are mistakes that are fortuitous. Mistakes that open up new lines of thinking, new perspectives on a problem, or mistakes that illuminate a more efficient way of doing something or somehow end up creating a positive outcome. Mistakes happen no matter what we do, because we’re human (no matter how hard we try to pretend we’re not). Mistakes sometimes happen without cause or reason, but regardless, learning to bear that burden and move forward at the same time may be one of the most important life lessons to learn from any mistake.


    Giordana, A., & Serra, A. (2001). Learning from mistakes. Human and Machine Perception, (3) 89-102.

    Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science319(5865), 966-968.

    Lamott, A. (2005). Shitty first drafts. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 21-26.