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Encouraging students to take risks and make mistakes

Updated: Aug 22

When I was studying psychology a lecturer handed two groups of students a six inch ruler and told us to use it to measure the lecture room. The two findings were then placed onto the board, and were wildly different. “That,” she said, “is an example of standard error.” There is an objective truth to the measurements of a room, but through error (including the tool given to us) we had not unanimously found it.

When psychologists conduct research using people the behaviour of the people in the study, combined with the people measuring the responses, are always subject to inaccuracy. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the fallibility of human behaviour: people make mistakes. In some ways, adults become less threatened by their limitations as they grow older and make more errors.

For children, perhaps teenagers more than most, the fear of making an error in front of others can impeded classroom contributions and ultimately restrict learning. The paradox that mistakes lead to learning and improvement clouds classroom discussion. The challenge is to encourage students to take risks, make errors and embrace those errors.

Human fallibility is undoubtedly true of other subjects, not just psychology: historians who made biased interpretations, scientists who were not listened to and authors who were never published in their lifetime. Whether these are mistakes, oversights or perceptual errors, learners must consider their fallibility in the pursuit of knowledge.

There are a number of points to get across to students which might encourage mistakes in the classroom with a view to improving learning.

1. Experts make mistakes

One way of encouraging students to think about the necessity to make errors is to point out how experts make mistakes in their field. Quantitative psychology research, for instance, is premeditated on the notorious 95% significance: the chance of the findings being the result of human error is one in twenty. The entire field takes a risk that research findings might have been incurred by error.

2. Make one ‘crazy’ point

If asking students to list or discuss possible answers to a question, suggest that they make one ‘crazy’ guess or answer that is unlikely to be right. If students keep doing this they will eventually come up with a crazy guess that turns out to be accurate or useful: sometimes taking risks can pay off. In the meantime, everyone can enjoy the crazy answers.

3. Think for one minute

Pausing for one minute to think about a teacher question can encourage confidence in the student to answer. Students might have thought of several points: which is the least likely and most likely to offer a way forward? Encourage the student to admit the thought that they eventually discarded: “at first I thought this, but then I thought something else instead”.

4. Cite research on errors

The work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow indicates how people have two perceptual systems in which one system is instinctive and the other is slower and logical. Humans are susceptible to errors, so making them is fine if you can identify why you made them.

Another trick here is to show visual illusions, like the rabbit or hare (there are many available), in which the top down perception is confused by bottom up perception. There is also The Stroop Test which shows that when you try to say an ink colour for a different colour word, responses are slower. Our very perceptual processes are vulnerable to error: it's a fact.

5. Role models make mistakes

Find a YouTube clip of a common role model discussing failure. These are easy to locate. Discuss the mindset of the successful individual: how has failure actually helped them? Psychologists in social influence research talk of an internal locus of control where the individual who sees their future outcomes as within their control are more likely to be independent and successful. There are online surveys to test locus of control: hand them out to students and discuss the statements.

6. Fail early

At A level some failure is inevitable. Better that this happens early than in the final papers. Tell students that a given test was difficult and get them to think about why. Rewrite difficult answers and spend time identifying what a better answer would look like. Do these things in the early days of a course and this will give time for improvement.

7. Warn against grade hierarchies

Naturally, if you feedback grades students will start comparing. Point out that all of them will have made errors and discourage the idea that mistakes fix you into a hierarchy. Actually, their relative position now is unlikely to inform their later grade, further study or career. Encourage students to accept their mistakes as something irrespective to the rest of their class.

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