Research Minute: Making the Case for Making Mistakes

"It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose which it truly has." - Maria Montessori

From a young age, we are taught the difference between right and wrong. This dichotomy is deeply ingrained in our institutions, including our education system. For students and instructors alike, a significant amount of emphasis is placed on and effort devoted to avoiding making mistakes in the classroom. However, research shows that being wrong can sometimes be worthwhile.

“Should one commit, explore, examine, analyze, and correct errors during learning and practice sessions, or should one avoid errors at all stages of learning?” This is the question Columbia University’s Jenna Metcalfe seeks to answer in a 2017 paper in the Annual Review of Psychology. To do that, she reviewed multiple studies looking at errors during learning, all of which found that students’ errorful learning followed by corrective feedback is beneficial. Specifically, mistakes “enhance later memory for and generation of the correct responses, facilitate active learning, stimulate the learner to direct attention appropriately, and inform the teacher of where to focus teaching.” Thus, errors are important for instructors, too, to help them identify gaps in students’ knowledge and understanding.

Giving students feedback is crucial to helping them understand where they went wrong, why their answer was wrong, and how to correct their mistake. The key is getting students to think about and respond critically to feedback on their mistakes. This is best done through elaborative exercises, where they must explain, describe, provide examples, illustrate, or compare or contrast correct and incorrect answers. Somewhat surprisingly, researchers have demonstrated that it is easier for students to change their minds when they are highly confident about their incorrect answer compared to when their confidence is low.

So what is the right amount of mistaking in learning? A recent study published in Nature Communications found a “sweet spot” for learning difficulty. The researchers found that the optimal error rate for learning is approximately 15% (Wilson, Shenhav, Straccia & Cohen, 2019). They say this finding shows that "training at this optimal difficulty can lead to exponential improvements in the rate of learning." Although the ratio was tested on computers via machine learning, the researchers believe their results can be applied to humans as well.

It’s still mostly unclear where the idea of “mistakes = bad” came from—although Metcalfe (2017) points to a 1963 study of errorless learning using pigeons in which the researcher attempted to test the role of inhibition in learning. Rather than bad, mistakes should instead be seen as opportunities and embraced in the classroom. Instructors play a fundamental role in this process: they should encourage errorful learning and provide students with quality, constructive feedback when applicable. Research shows this will help students better recall the correct answer the next time and foster a sense of achievement in mastering the material. Ultimately, sometimes being wrong is good.


References

Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 465-489. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044022

Nebel, C. (2019, October 17). Mistakes or Opportunities? Learning from Errors. The Learning Scientists. Retrieved from https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2019/10/17-1

Wilson, R.C., Shenhav, A., Straccia, M. et al. (2019). The Eighty Five Percent Rule for optimal learning. Nature Communications, 10, 4646. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12552-4

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