Most of us can remember a moment like this from our school years: the teacher poses a question – maybe it’s math, maybe history. You raise your hand, you give your answer with full assurance. And then? You’re shot down. You got it wrong.
We remember moments like this because they brim with some of our least favorite emotions: shame, humiliation, self-recrimination, and that gutting sense that you want to melt into the floor. Ah yes, I remember it well.
As it turns out, though, such moments are ripe with learning opportunity. Contrary to what many of us might guess, making a mistake with high confidence and then being corrected is one of the most powerful ways to absorb something and retain it.
In recent years, cognitive scientists have done gobs of research on how making mistakes help us learn, much of it funded by the federal Institute for Education Science. Some findings make intuitive sense. Some are completely surprising. And many important findings that are relevant to teaching are not making it into the classroom, or penetrating very slowly.
Traditionally, educators and psychologists in the U.S. were not fans of allowing students to flounder. B.F. Skinner, the hugely influential 20th century behavioral psychologist, didn't even like his lab rats and pigeons to err and constructed experiments to shape their behavior toward always getting the task right. “He thought if they made a mistake, the mistake would get entrenched, and you’d have to backtrack to erase it,” explains Janet Metcalfe, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, and the author of an impressive scientific review titled “Learning from Errors,” published earlier this year in Annual Review of Psychology.
These wrong approaches are like crab grass, they are hard to get rid of and often have deep roots. You really have to undermine the roots of the misconception as well as strengthen the correct conception.
~ Robert Siegler, Carnegie Mellon University psychologist
American educators, perhaps influenced by Skinner, have tended to see things the same way. Classic studies by psychologists James Stigler of UCLA and the late Harold Stevenson, detailed in their 1994 book The Learning Gap, compared videotaped lessons in eighth-grade math in several countries. They found that American teachers emphasized specific procedures for 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.
“Learning about what is wrong may hasten understanding of why the correct procedures are appropriate,” they wrote, “but errors may also be interpreted as failure. And Americans … strive to avoid situations where this might happen.”
The American allergy to errors began to ease with a burst of new studies by cognitive psychologists beginning this century. They showed clear benefits to engaging with mistakes—in both verbal and math tasks. For instance, Nate Kornell of Williams College conducted a word-pair experiment in which people were cued with a word (say, tree) and then asked to pair it a related “target” word (say, oak). He found that they remembered the target word significantly better if they had made a wrong guess (like maple or pine) and were corrected than if they were simply given the correct pairing and asked to memorize it.
Numerous other studies have confirmed and expanded upon this finding. Metcalfe and others have shown that on tests involving general knowledge (What’s the capital of Australia?), a wild guess doesn’t help with learning. “They have to be making a serious stab at the answer,” she notes. And it was Metcalfe and colleagues who showed that the more certain you are of your wrong answer, the better you will learn the right one after being corrected.
Why is this? The answer isn’t completely clear but it likely involves the fact that making an error rallies your attention — and even more so if you’re surprised that you got it wrong. In addition, it is easier to learn something new after you’ve summoned up your prior knowledge — a process neuroscientists call memory reconsolidation.
There’s hard, biological evidence for some of this. By placing electroencephalogram caps on subjects as they play videogames or do other tasks, scientists have identified specific signals in the brain 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 you 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.
By taking the grade off their test I thought they might spend more time looking at what they got right and what they got wrong. I wanted to refocus them on actually learning the content.
~ Leah Alcala, math teacher in Berkeley, Calif.
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Last Updated on March 17, 2020
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