Making mistakes can be a Good Thing

One of the changes we made in our curriculum this year has been to work on creating spaces where students are willing to “have a go” at figuring out a clinical problem that we give them. We realised that students were reluctant to try because they were worried about failing the challenge. They didn’t want to stand out as “not knowing” because they believed that everyone else did know. There was a culture of fear around making mistakes.

We’re now trying to get students to see that making mistakes is actually a great way of learning, if you pay attention to what went wrong, and then try to understand how you can prevent the same mistake from happening again. It emphasises the process of learning (i.e. figuring out a problem through iterative attempts at finding a solution), rather than the product (i.e. coming up with the “right” answer).

In the beginning it was difficult for students to feel safe enough to have a go at figuring out the problem, but we’ve come to a point now where it’s just normal. We normalise not knowing the answer as part of a developmental process of coming to know it. And, it’s really working well. Which is why I was excited to read this article about how making mistakes can help with learning.

It turns out there are two responses to making mistakes:

  1. Focus on the negative outcome as a problem that needs to be solved. What happened, and why did it happen?
  2. Focus on the negative outcome as a threat. Escape feeling bad by not thinking about the mistake.

And, there are two good predictors of how certain people will respond to making a mistake:

  1. If you believe that your intelligence can change with practice and effort, you will pay more attention to mistakes and benefit from having made them. If you believe that intelligence is fixed, you are more likely to ignore mistakes and therefore not improve your performance as a result.
  2. If you are more experienced at a task, you are less likely to pay attention to mistakes and more likely to show a confirmation bias (e.g. you believe you know what you’re doing, and so ignore indicators that contradict that view).
I really do believe that in low stakes environments, which most higher education contexts are, students should be encouraged to at least make an attempt at solving a problem, so that errors in reasoning and performance can be identified and then clarified. Obviously there are high stakes educational contexts where mistakes, no matter how beneficial for the learner, are always bad. Surgery is a simple example that springs to mind. The key is in ensuring that the student feels safe to fail. Without this sense of safety, they will continue hiding their ignorance in the belief that they are supposed to know what the answer is, rather than believing that they are part of a process of coming to know.

Here are the original studies:

  • Moser JS, Schroder HS, Heeter C, Moran TP, Lee YH (2011). Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science, 2011
  • Downar J, Bhatt M, Montague PR (2011). Neural correlates of effective learning in experienced medical decision-makers. PLoS ONE, 6 (11): e27768