Tip #685: Better Learning From Mistakes

“There are no mistakes or failures, only lessons.” Denis Waitley

[Note: All of the information in this Tip is drawn from “Why Mistakes Matter in Creating a Path for Learning,” by Claudia Wallis in The Hechinger Report (7-26-17).] https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/07/26/how-making-mistakes-primes-kids-to-learn-better/

Did you know that:

  1. We pay more attention when we make an error?
  2. If we are surprised that our answer is wrong, this really gets our attention?
  3. The more certain we are of our wrong answer, the better we will learn the right one after being corrected?
  4. Learners need permission to make mistakes so they can learn from them?
  5. The best way to help them learn from their mistakes is to ask learners to explain how they got their answers- both the wrong and the right answers- rather than simply asking what the correct answer is?

In their 1994 book The Learning Gap, psychologists James Stigler of UCLA and the late Harold Stevenson compared videotaped lessons of eighth-grade math from different countries. They found that American teachers emphasized specific procedures for correctly solving problems, largely ignored errors, and praised correct answers.

Japanese teachers, by contrast, asked students to find their own way through problems and then led a discussion of common errors, why they might seem plausible, and why they were wrong. Praise was rarely given and students were meant to see struggle and setbacks as part of learning. The difference, the authors believed, is one reason that Japanese students outperform Americans in math.

There are two specific signals in the brain that are linked to making errors. The first one, known as Error-Related Negativity or ERN, occurs just 50 millionths of a second after the error. That’s well before we are even conscious of the mistake! A second wave, called error positivity (Pe for short), comes 50 to 550 milliseconds later and is believed to reflect conscious attention to the error, usually followed by an effort to avoid repeating it.

According to Hans Schroder at Michigan State: “The ERN tends to correlate with grade-point average. It’s linked with the ability to recognize when things don’t go as expected and to better working memory.”

“The Pe is more linked to effort, becoming aware of mistakes and rebounding.” While both signals emanate from a brain region called the anterior cingulate, the Pe involves more widespread activity as we allocate mental resources to improve our performance.

In her book, Mindset, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck defined two distinct mindsets, the belief that one’s intelligence: (1) is fixed or (2) is fluid and can grow with effort. People with a fixed mindset tend to see errors as signs that they are not good at something. Those with a growth mindset see them as signs they need to work harder.

Studies with both children and adults have shown that people with a growth mindset have a stronger Pe signal following an error. Just as important, growth-minded people demonstrate greater improvement after they are made aware of their error.

Unfortunately, the American belief that it is better for learners to receive correct answers rather than to learn from mistakes is so pervasive that it even affects the perceptions of study participants. Even though they improved their performance after getting something wrong and learning how to correct it, they insist that they did better when they were given the correct answer!

May your learning be sweet.


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