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

Posted to Diigo 12/10/2010

    • The zone of proximal development is the area between what an individual can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with assistance
    • A student should constantly be reaching slightly beyond their capabilities rather than working within them
    • students should lead their learning and teachers simply assist and rather than judging students on what they know in standardised tests, learning should be done through looking closely at their zone of proximal development
    • If informal learning is as important as formal learning, then varying the way students are assessed can only work in their favour
    • Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage
    • it’s necessary for learners to attach a new piece of information to an old one
    • If a student acquires new information that’s unrelated to anything already stored in his brain, it’s tough for the new information to get into those networks because it has no scaffolding to cling to
    • a solid amount of research also links personal relevance and emotional engagement to memory storage
    • “the learner’s emotional reaction to the outcome of his efforts … shapes his future behavior,”
    • if [a student] doesn’t believe a particular activity is interesting, relevant, or within the scope of his capabilities, it’s probably not going to sink in
    • too much emotion can be as detrimental to learning as too little: distractions and stress can also block receptivity to new ideas
    • Make it student directed. Give students a choice of assignments on a particular topic, or ask them to design one of their own. “When students are involved in designing the lesson, they better understand the goal…and become more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes.”
    • Connect it to their lives and what they already know. Taking the time to brainstorm about what students already know and would like to learn about a topic helps them to create goals — and helps teachers see the best points of departure for new ideas. Making cross-curricular connections also helps solidify those neural loops
    • With no reference point and no intrigue, information is fairly likely to go in one ear and straight out the other
    • Happy learners are healthy learners, if students do not feel comfortable in a classroom setting, they will not learn. Physiologically speaking, stressed brains are not able to form the necessary neural connections
    • The amygdala, for instance, processes emotions, stores the memories of emotional reactions, and reacts so aggressively to stress that it will physically prevent information from reaching the centers of the brain necessary for absorbing new knowledge
    • Even feelings like embarrassment, boredom, or frustration — not only fear — can spur the brain to enter the proverbial “fight or flight” mode
    • The amygdala goes into overdrive and gets in the way of the parts of the brain that can store memories
    • it makes sense — on many levels — to cultivate the learning atmosphere as much as the learning itself. “Reducing stress and establishing a positive emotional climate in the classroom is arguably the most essential component of teaching,”
    • Make the classroom stress free. Lighten the mood by making jokes and spurring curiosity; create a welcoming and consistent environment; give students frequent opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussions without judgment; and determine achievable challenges for each learner
    • Encourage participation, not perfection. A classroom in which mistakes are encouraged is a positive learning environment, both neurologically and socially speaking
    • “Students will allow themselves to experience failure only if they can do so within an atmosphere of trust and respect.”
    • This kind of positive reinforcement from the get-go allows students to let their guard down (known in neuro-speak as calming their “affective filters”). Listening to students in general, and listening to their intentions in particular, can help relax anxious brains.
    • Practice active listening. “Focus on what students are trying to say
    • Intelligence is not fixed, it turns out, nor planted firmly in our brains from birth. Rather, it’s forming and developing throughout our lives
    • neuroplasticity is defined as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brains
    • neuroplasticity is defined as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brain
    • “cells that fire together, wire together”
    • “Practice makes permanent. The more times the network is stimulated, the stronger and more efficient it becomes.”
    • both morale and grade points increase when students understand the idea that intelligence is malleable
    • Practice, practice, practice. Repeating an activity, retrieving a memory, and reviewing material in a variety of ways helps build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain
    • Put information in context. Recognizing that learning is, essentially, the formation of new or stronger neural connections, it makes sense to prioritize activities that help students tap into already-existing pathways
    • “Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships between concepts, they generate greater brain cell activity and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval.”
    • Let students know that this is how the brain works. “Especially for students who believe they are ‘not smart,’ the realization that they can literally change their brains through study and review is empowering.”

To err is human: building a safer health system (free book)

While typing up my notes from the SAAHE conference (see previous post), I came across To err is human: building a safer health system, a book that had been mentioned by one of the keynote speakers. It looks at the medical community’s historically poor track record on accepting responsibility for mistakes made by healthcare professionals and discusses the alternatives. It was published in 2000 by the National Academies Press (NAP) and is available in hardback for about $40.

However, when the site identified my country of residence as South Africa, it suggested that by registering, I could download the PDF for free for personal use. The file is only 2.3 MB, which is a quick download even on dial-up. Obviously, the NAP makes certain publications available to residents of certain countries who they feel would benefit from those books but may not be able to afford the fee.

I’d definitely recommend registering on the site to see what else they have available. I’ve had a quick look through To err is human and although I’m not a huge fan of reading books on my computer (and this one is 312 pages long), I think I’ll give this one a go. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to put up a short review.

The direct link to the Table of Contents for the online book is http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9728#toc (if you’re registered with the site and live in South Africa, you should also have the option to download the PDF of the book for free).