Embracing Mistakes in Learning

Male student working at a table with male teacher helping.From crumpled up essays lying on the floor to the overheard “I don’t care anyway”, we have all borne witness to student apathy. We spend hours marking student work, only to have students become dejected, argue, or shut down completely. All of these reactions are a result of students pushing away failure when they should be embracing it.


Teaching Students to Implement Feedback

To implement feedback, students must understand that mistakes are really just an opportunity to improve. In other words, we must teach students to have a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset love learning and believe that they have agency over their own futures. Students with this mindset, for example, believe that they can make decisions that impact their learning, and therefore, their grades.

We can teach students to develop a growth mindset by helping them to understand that feedback on their work is not intended as personal criticism. At times, students’ feelings are hurt when they believe critical feedback is a judgment of their intelligence, rather than a judgment of the work itself. Encourage them to look at feedback to find specific actions they can take to improve.

On occasion, our feedback may be overwhelming to students. Rather than correcting every perceived error, choose the feedback that will help students improve the most, and save the small stuff for another day.

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Allow students to take ownership of their work by giving them an opportunity to ask questions in a non-threatening environment. Student conferences are a good way to accomplish this. While other students are working independently, conduct one-on-one meetings with students. Allow them to take the lead by coming prepared with a list of questions or comments about their work.

Once students have implemented your feedback, praise them for the specific skills they’ve improved upon. For instance, on an essay, rather than “much better!” write “better use of description here”. With specific praise, students see the direct results of implementing feedback and are more likely to develop the growth mindset that will help them succeed. Once students have practiced implementing feedback, taking risks becomes less intimidating.

Teaching Students the Value of Taking Risks

We so often tell students to be careful and make good choices, but how often do we encourage them to take risks? Taking calculated risks is exceptional way to discover new interests, try new things, and push ourselves to be better. If things don’t work out as planned, at least we have learned something valuable.

We can model this for students by trying new approaches to teaching. Try a flipped classroom or project-based learning, for example. As you face challenges along the way, share how you overcame them and learned from your mistakes.

We can encourage the value of risk-taking through both historical and contemporary examples. Without people who were willing to take risks, social and technological progress would be impossible. Students have to be willing to try new things if we are ever to improve as people and as a society.

In our own classrooms, we can create a culture that values risk-taking. Re-takes allow students to get feedback on their learning, work to improve, and try again. We can also change our questioning techniques to include more open-ended questions, such as “I wonder what would happen if…?” or “What do you think about…?” With open-ended questions, students are more willing to risk sharing their answers because the thinking process itself is more important. Furthermore, the more we differentiate to accommodate varying student needs, the more opportunities there are for stretching students just beyond their comfort zones.

Teach Students How to Give Constructive Feedback

As difficult as it can be for students to accept feedback, giving feedback can be even more uncomfortable. We must directly teach our students how to give feedback to their peers. This can be done by modeling a critique, either of an actual student’s work or of a sample work. Demonstrate how to be specific and focused when giving feedback, while also remaining kind.

Rubrics can help students focus on the goals of the assignment and remain objective. This rubric should also be used when modeling the feedback process. Once the teacher has modeled the process, students may be given some practice providing feedback on work samples from previous years or other classes. Teachers can check to see if students grasp the process before allowing them to give feedback on peer work.

By learning to implement feedback, value risk-taking, and give constructive feedback, students can learn how to embrace their mistakes as a chance to learn.



Lindsay is a middle school principal and holds an MA in Educational Leadership. 

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