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3 Ways to Make Students Mistakes Valuable


How can we help change the negative perceptions associated with mistakes so our children can more easily bounce back?

Our children are growing up in a world that emphasizes high standards for academic success. As parents, we want our students to put forth their absolutely best effort each and every time they attempt a task. In doing this, to some degree, we create academic learning conditions that discourage mistakes. Watching our children make mistakes is not easy.

Whether it’s misspelling a word or doing poorly on a math test, children learn important lessons from making mistakes and gain confidence when they spring back from them. An important part of the learning process is knowing what to do after a mistake has been made. The challenge is that mistakes are naturally associated with negative emotions such as feeling unintelligent, ashamed, or embarrassed. Alternately, when mistakes are perceived as being valuable assets in the learning process, students can learn to how use them constructively to guide their learning.

How can we help change the negative perceptions associated with mistakes so our children can more easily bounce back?

Communicate the Value of Mistakes

One way to encourage this attitude is to analyze mistakes together and be specific about the feedback. Knowing that the answer to problem #5 is wrong doesn’t suggest how he can improve. Pointing out to him that he substituted an incorrect value in a math formula gives him guidance for solving the problem the next time.

When you review work with your student, he will discover that a mistake that makes him feel inadequate is usually a simple error in computation or a single concept applied incorrectly to several questions. In either scenario, the “fix” is usually easier than how big the problem feels to him. The more accepting you are about the mistakes he has made and how they happened, the less significance your student will place on future errors. He will begin to understand that mistakes are opportunities from which he can learn and which will help him become more resilient.

Identify the Reason Why a Mistake Happened

Did the mistake happen because your student needs more practice with basic facts? Were the steps of a process properly executed? Did she misread the directions? A problem marked wrong simply shows that the actions he took to solve it did not work, but this can easily be adjusted for the next round of practice.

Sharing specific ways she can improve is an effective way to coach her in purposeful practice. Purposeful practice involves isolating what’s not working and then mastering the skill causing difficulty before moving on to the next concept or lesson. For example, a singer learning a new song does not sing the piece start to finish, rushing through tricky sections and trying to sing it “good enough” just to finish. The vocalist will pause in trouble spots, figure out how to make it sound better, and then continue to sing the section again, only moving on when it has been mastered. This same principle can be applied to mistakes in a school assignments by focusing on the specific type of practice that is needed, instead of how much.

Acknowledge What Your Student Has Done Well

Then give him a chance to correct his mistakes and redo his work. This helps him learn that you value his effort and accept imperfection. It also conveys that sometimes learning involves trying again or learning a new strategy. When improvement becomes a significant factor in the evaluation process, a student is more likely to show progress and develop confidence.

We know our children will make mistakes on their assignments, projects, and tests– some simple and some more complex. It is important to show them that their mistakes contain seeds of learning. It is not an easy task, but, over time, you can help shift your student’s mindset, even slightly, so she views mistakes not as incidents to be feared and avoided but as inevitable, and often valuable, opportunities for new learning.

We have the opportunity to minimize opportunities for student anxiety and make confidence and resilience a habit in the lives of our children.



About Scottie Altland

Scottie Altland is a certified elementary educator with specialties in math and curriculum development. Previously, Scottie taught grades 5-8 in public schools and worked for a local non-profit organization, offering families and students a broad range of family life education programs. As a mother of two, she enjoys spending time with her family, is an outdoor enthusiast, and continues to love teaching and learning. For the past year, Scottie has served as the Elementary Math Editor for Demme Learning.