October 12th, 2016

Are We Afraid to Let Students Make Mistakes?


students working in a lab

We  know students are afraid of making mistakes, often dreadfully so. And so we talk a good line about the learning potential inherent in mistakes.

But are we afraid to let students make mistakes? Is it just a problem with students not wanting to be wrong, or does our need to control learning experiences keep students from making mistakes?

Teaching Professor Blog A study reporting on the challenges biology teaching assistants confronted when they started using inquiry-based approaches in labs uncovered this barrier (among others) that compromised their use of the approach. The TAs “felt responsible for protecting and controlling student learning experiences.” (p. 219) “TAs struggled to allow students to experience the failure inherent in doing science, providing information and directions rather than giving students ownership for seeking information and making experimental decisions.” (p. 219) Although these findings are in one science field, I don’t believe being afraid to let students make mistakes is unique to science education or to TAs.

Here are some reasons why I’m wondering if this might not be a more widespread faculty fear. First off, as noted in the article, in some ways the costs of failure in the classroom are higher than they are in the lab. If an experiment goes awry in the professional lab, the scientist starts over and does it again. It’s all part of the job. In the classroom lab, if an experiment goes belly up (or more generically, when learning goes awry in any classroom), there’s a summative consequence. The student gets a low grade, and that’s of concern to most of us.

Another reason that emerged from the study was time pressure. Said a bit more bluntly, with all that content to cover, we don’t have time for mistakes, especially “dumb” ones, the kind novices frequently make. So we “guide” the learning—rather than waiting around for students to seek out the information, we give it to them. Instead of giving students space to ask irrelevant questions and ponder various alternatives—we steer the learning with leading questions.

Then, as some of the TAs in this study indicated, there’s the fear of what failure does to students. Maybe it will dampen whatever small motivation they had to do well in the lab, the course, or the discipline. Maybe they won’t be able to handle the frustration that comes with setbacks. Or maybe they’ll be mad and take out that anger out on the teacher’s end-of-course evaluations.

I also think many of us have a subtle fear of error as it relates to the “truth” held in our fields. I once observed an English lit teacher melt down as students proposed a “radical” theory to explain a character’s action in a Toni Morrison novel. “No,” the teacher exclaimed “that’s not what the literary critics believe.” The students (a wonderfully rabble crowd) said they didn’t care what the literary critics thought. “But you must!” she cried in frustration. “What you think isn’t right. Scholars have spent years studying this book.” And, she was right. What the students proposed wasn’t especially viable but she couldn’t let it their erroneous thinking stand for two reasons. She didn’t want students leaving the novel, her course, or the field believing something so wrong. But she also felt a need to protect what had been determined to be right and true by the scholars in the field. She could have asked questions that might have raised issues with what students were proposing, but she panicked, asserted her authority, and told them they were wrong. They’d made a mistake, but she took away their opportunity to learn from it.

The example illustrates another reason we might be reluctant to let students make mistakes. We’re afraid of what happens after the mistake. Can we get the student to do it over and get it right? Learning from mistakes isn’t automatic, so there’s no guarantee that the second attempt will yield better results. How do we help the student leave the event having learned something worth knowing?

The stakes are high when you stand alongside a student who’s about to make a mistake. There are reasons to be fearful, but do those reasons count more than the benefits of letting students learn by doing?

What do you think? Have you found a way to give your students the time and space needed to make and learn from their mistakes? I welcome your comments below.

Reference: Gormally, C., Sullivan, C. S., and Szeinbaum, N., (2016). Uncovering barriers to teaching assistants [TAs] implementing inquiry teaching: Inconsistent facilitation techniques, student resistance, and reluctance to share control over learning with students. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 17 (2), 215-224.

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  • Karen Kohler

    Isn’t this the essence of formative assessment? Those opportunities to grapple with difficult material come often in the classroom–and it’s amazing to witness those lightbulb moments when the understanding dawns. I love letting students decide whether they are “right” or “wrong” in their answers. And, yes, sometimes we have to help them understand there are wrong answers. Creating a safe learning environment is key. I tell my students, “This [the classroom] is where we practice!” This is exactly why I teach!

    • Pratt Bennet

      I totally agree, Karen. Most other forms of non-academic learning- cooking, sports, relationships, art -include and integrate trial and error into the discovery process. The problem, I believe, is conflating teaching with learning. We can teach them core concepts, skills, and facts, but that doesn’t mean they’ve learned them. It is through their mistakes that they show us what they’re thinking and capable of, and through our response to those mistakes that we can either block or facilitate their learning. Many of my most successful students begin the semester making massive errors, which I then feature as useful for everyone to learn from, making them de facto teachers of the class. This often leads to a massive boost in their confidence and they often excel in the very area they’d failed in initially. Bring the errors on!

    • Akilah

      I also tell my students that it’s okay for them to be wrong because otherwise they wouldn’t need a teacher or be in school.

  • Jake Hughes

    I teach high school math and have flipped my classroom so students work in class. This allows time for them to not only make mistakes but also ask questions they wouldn’t be able to ask at home.

  • Walter Lowe

    This is such a complex issue that it is difficult to point to one area or aspect without the “that’s not my experience” or “that’s too simplistic” objections popping up right and left. Nonetheless, here are a couple of my observations and practices at the “two-year college” level.

    Emphasis on student self-esteem. This seems to have been a trend for some time and students tend to be deflated by honest constructive feedback (criticism). The emphasis of stressing that each student has unique value and importance hasn’t included the needs or skills to “refine” the raw material of that unique character personality value and importance. Students expect to be accepted and recognized as valuable in their current state. The Mary Poppins “A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down” seems to have changed with heavy emphasis on the sugar and reduced dosages of “medicine” as teachers focus on protecting the student levels of self-esteem. Look at the 2007 Nation article “Mirror, Mirror on the Web” by Lakshmi Chaudhry. http://www.hu.mtu.edu/~jdslack/readings/Chaudry_Mirror_Mirror_onthe_web.pdf

    Emphasis on grades as a measure of worth. In my English 101 class my students write a short paragraph the first day to explain why they are taking the class. Then they write a second paragraph to explain how they will determine in the future if the class was “good” or not. After some group discussions, we list the answers to each on the board and vote for the primary and secondary reasons in each. Invariably, “required for the degree” and “fits my schedule” are the top two reasons. However, the top two criteria for evaluation show up as “improved my writing skills,” “used the content in my career or other class,” “impacted my future life,” and so forth. In class we discuss the “disconnect” between the two – if the primary concern is to get the credit for the degree, then “getting a good grade” should be the assessment tool as well. Although gaining skills may be their subconscious motivation, they agonize over the grade itself rather than the benefit of feedback toward the submerged motivations. A low grade indicates an “inferior” person (see lack of self-esteem above) and students drop the course if they suspect their grade in the course will drag down the overall gpa regardless of the skill set learning going on.

    Emphasis on victim status. Somehow our culture has taken on an attitude of “victim status” as a sort of badge of honor to protect the individual’s level of self-esteem. In this viewpoint, the individual suffers because others don’t understand him/her. When obstacles arise, it is “okay” if the individual is overwhelmed by those obstacles because such circumstances are beyond the individual’s control. In the past, the individual was honored as a “victor” when facing and overcoming obstacles. However, these days the attention is primarily on the victims who appear on the talk shows and other media – evoking the sympathy and empathy of “Society” (whoever that is). Being a victim is so much easier than being a victor. The emergence of the “trigger” warnings these days has made the scope of true victimhood much more inclusive to the general populace. Woe to the teacher or institution that limits the scope of trigger barriers in the classroom.

    So what do we do? We allow lots of rewrite and revision work, we give “second-chance” tests, we only “grade” on participation rather than on accuracy of content, and so forth to encourage the students to take responsibility for their own development. Instead, they make half-hearted attempts, knowing that this will bring encouragement and guidance for getting the “right” answers eventually. If they run into a “hard-nosed” instructor who expects the best effort up front, the students retreat into the “victim” mode. If the teacher won’t include a “bullet-list” with the assignment explanation, then the students can’t be blamed for not following the guidelines explained in a couple pages of content.

    In my classes, the first paper is held to a strict standard of academic conventions combined with expectations of college-level in-depth analysis and critical thinking. Students not content with the grade on the first paper can write a replacement, but it needs to be on a different topic and the grade will replace the initial grade. (If a B paper is replaced by a C+ paper, the B is now gone.) Very few students opt to do the replacement. At the end of the term, when I assign the fourth paper, I tell the students I will only count the best three grades. Thus, if the student is content with the grades on the first three papers, then the fourth becomes optional. However, a good effort on the fourth paper will then “knock out” that low grade on the first paper. Again, very few students opt to write the fourth paper. Although it is much easier being the victim, it is hard to justify it when so many lifelines are offered.

    On the old Dallas TV series, Bobby Ewing, one of the adult sons, complained to his father (Jock Ewing) about interference in running the business coming from other family members. Bobby said to Jock, “You gave me the responsibility for the business.” Jock’s response was classic:

    “Responsibility is not something you are given; it is something you take!”

  • dkchef

    Great comment Karen. I think allowing the student to apply and just start to sink is learning. Standing by to allow them to right themselves or step in and nudge them in the right direction. The student then owns the knowledge. Encouraging fellow students to assist also shows that some have gained the skill and instills group confidence in the process. Trying and failing is as important as getting it right the first time.

  • Maribeth

    In the real world, there are times you don’t have the time and space for errors. You have to make it right as there will be dire consequence like the cash register not balancing at the end of the day and you have to justify to all your superiors above why. This is just a simple example I could think of, but there was a time I had ordered a shipment that almost filled a ship because of the error I made. One needs to have wisdom as to when to correct instantly or not.

  • Rich

    Before considering whether there is a reluctance to permit error, one has to determine if an inquiry-based approach is even appropriate. Research on low-guidance methods show they are often less effective than guided instruction for all but the more advanced students. It is not at all obvious that “learning from a mistake” is going to occur when the student does not have the knowledge to understand the error. The TAs may have actually been salvaging the learning experience. For example, relieving the students of having to focus on procedural steps may reduce cognitive load that would otherwise interfere with focusing on conceptual understanding. What is the focus of the activity? It may be the case that the TAs’ interventions were counterproductive. We have to look at what is appropriate for the context and the desired outcome.

  • Bobbi

    I truly believe the need for instructors to control. Students are not only afraid of making mistakes but they are afraid to try for fear of the instructor failing them for making the mistake. The pressure and stress alone causes the mistakes. I know the reasoning for the instructor to control the environment is because she/he doesn’t want to put their liciense at risk, but creating so much stress for students causes so many adverse effects, and it follows that student through out their career.