“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
Alexander Pope was right, especially when it comes to learning.
Making mistakes while learning is inevitable. Forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes.
Research by Nina Keith and others suggests that the way you think about mistakes can either work for you or against you when it comes to learning.
Two Ways to Think About Mistakes
1. Avoid Mistakes
Many can fall into the trap of thinking mistakes are bad. The natural tendency of this mindset is to avoid mistakes. In the inevitable case where a mistake is made the response is often negative. Frustration, disappointment and even anger can occur. With these emotions in play, you won’t learn from your mistakes.
Many teachers and students set up the learning environment to avoid making mistakes. This leads to the use of more passive learning methods. For example, teachers may provide fail-proof step-by-step instructions. And avoid the need to give effective feedback. Likewise, you may only try learning tasks that you feel confident that you know the answer to. This is all in the name of avoiding mistakes.
There are some things to consider when thinking about mistakes in this way. In the short term you might feel good because you get the right answer every time. However, chances are, when it comes to the test you will be asked to apply what you learned in a different way. This can lead to a mistake when your performance really matters. You may feel the very same negative emotions during the test that you were able to avoid while you were learning.
2. Embrace Mistakes
An alternative way to approach mistakes is to embrace them. By coming to terms with the fact that mistakes are part of the learning process you can see them as opportunities. This mindset has been shown to support learning. Get in this frame of mind and learn from your mistakes.
Teachers with this mindset provide learning tasks where students have some basic guidelines to follow rather than step-by-step instructions. Students with this mindset tend to engage in active learning methods and study skills. The idea that mistakes are okay frees you to actively explore a topic or task. When you do make a mistake, reminding yourself that mistakes are a natural part of learning can help prevent negative emotions from creeping in. You can focus on the mistake as information about what you know, and what you need to learn more about.
Embracing mistakes has benefits besides helping to control negative emotions. Mistakes require the generation of a solution. This prompts investigation of different aspects of the task or topic to find a solution. In this way you may learn things that you wouldn’t have if you were merely following rigid instructions. In the end you will have a better overall understanding of a task or topic. You will be more likely to adapt your knowledge and get a correct answer if you are asked a related but different question on a test.
How Mistakes Lead to Better Learning
Shifting your mindset to accept errors influences learning in two ways. First, it exercises emotional control. Controlling the anger and frustration associated with making a mistake frees up mental resources to focus on learning.
Second, it allows you to take a more active role in your learning. When you encounter a mistake it can lead to thinking about the problem in a new way. You may find yourself rethinking the strategy you used to arrive at the mistake. You may investigate why the strategy did not work. This can lead to thinking about and trying different strategies that result in a correct outcome. This process helps you learn more deeply about a task or topic.
You will be better prepared if you embrace mistakes than if you had learned by following step-by-step instructions. We stress taking ownership of your learning this way in our study skills course. There really is much to learn from your mistakes. This is because you will have gained a better understanding of a task or topic when working through a mistake. In addition, you will have learned the processes of emotional control and thinking of the problem in a different way. These processes will help you adapt knowledge in situations that don’t exactly match what you learned.
The next time you encounter a mistake, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and remind yourself it’s not such a bad thing. Then, press on.
Keith, N. (2012). Managing errors during training. In J. Bauer and C. Harteis (eds.), Human Fallibility: The Ambiguity of Errors for Work and Learning (pp. 173-195). Springer: Dordrecht, NL.
Image credit: gracekifer