Making Mistakes Well

I often find myself telling my students that one of the most important things that they can learn in school is how to make mistakes well. At first, this might seem a little counter-intuitive—Really, Miss G? Mistakes?

The truth is that no matter how hard we try, we are all going to make mistakes and errors from time-to-time…even teachers do! Knowing how to learn from one’s mistakes and how to deal with setbacks without being paralyzed can be incredibly difficult, but it is a valuable life skill.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that more and more students seem to struggle with anxiety or anxious thoughts, and feel very overwhelmed when they don’t score well on a multiple choice test, or when they have to make revisions on an essay, or perhaps they have fallen behind. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to avoid the work entirely, something that usually compounds the problem. Instead, we try to help students work through mistakes and setbacks, hopefully allowing them to see these as opportunities for growth.

Here are some tips that can help you “make mistakes well”:

  1. Reframe. When a student sees a poor grade on an assignment, their first instinct is often, “I’m stupid, I don’t get this and never will.” This is especially common on multiple-choice tests, and can lead to a feeling of defeat.At CEA, we try to encourage students to remember that a quiz or test grade is only one measure of learning, and not always the best one. A low grade only means that there is some gap in understanding—it’s just a matter of finding the gap and helping students to bridge it! 🙂 Since we are a mastery-based program, this is a key goal for us as teachers. We work with students to revise work to help put the focus on real learning and not just a test score. We also try to have different types of assessments, such as projects or essays in addition to multiple-choice tests, so that students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.
  2. Review and Revise. When a mistake is made, it’s important to figure out exactly what happened in order to prevent making that error in the future. Finding past mistakes and fixing them can help solidify a deeper understanding of concepts.At CEA, we help students with this process in a few different ways. With math assignments, we often ask to see “scratch work”, so that we can help students figure out where the mistake is. Sometimes, it might just be a small error that threw off the final answer! We also try to encourage students to practice this skill by checking their own work and hopefully catching errors before they submit things! In other classes, it might be a matter of making notes on an assignment or helping students address concepts they need to learn a little more fully.This is also a practice we constantly engage in ourselves. Every year as a school, we look at survey data and other feedback; then we make goals to constantly improve what we do as a school. The ability to look at one’s work and find ways to continuously grow is a valuable life skill that can be applied in multiple contexts.
  3. Regain Confidence. The final key is remembering that none of us is perfect. Making a mistake or error from time to time is inevitable. The goal is to not allow our mistakes to paralyze us, but to figure out how to address the error and move forward confidently. Our goal is to support students in this process, and to be a resource for them to help them grow and learn both content and important life skills.
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