On Learning from Teaching Mistakes

Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay
Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

I think most faculty have a love-hate relationship with mistakes. On the one hand, we understand that learning is messy and involves missteps and do-overs. We know that a growth mindset is important to development. We want to see mistakes as opportunities. But on the other hand, no matter how well we understand at an intellectual level that mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process, many of us experience mistakes as overwhelmingly negative. Our own mistakes engender dread, a wrenching in the gut, and sweaty palms. They trigger doubt and embarrassment. They are a judgment against us and signal a lack of innate ability.

Not surprisingly, this contradiction between knowing and feeling gets in the way when we try to create an environment that promotes mistake making and risk-taking for our students. If we were more comfortable making mistakes, we’d be better able to envision the safety we want to create. I know this because I’ve been there. There was a time when my efforts to encourage mistakes and risk relied on statements like “there are no bad questions” and “mistakes are a chance to learn.” Those statements didn’t entirely work for me; why did I think they’d work for my students?

So when I hear a faculty member say that their students don’t like making mistakes and ask what they can do differently in their classroom, I suspect I’m talking with someone who is in the middle of that love-hate relationship. I can offer a few suggestions—use “tell me more” statements, or provide examples that have errors and discuss them during class, or incorporate low-stakes opportunities to practice—but I also know that those will be of limited value if the faculty member doing the asking isn’t also working on becoming more comfortable with their own mistakes. Like I said, I’ve been there.

One of my all-time favorite moments as a teacher involved the synchronicity of my personal efforts to develop more of a growth mindset and my search for pedagogical strategies to support my students’ when they mis-stepped. The episode occurred in a sophomore biology lab during the first few weeks of the semester somewhere in the middle of my career. The activity that day was designed to give students a chance to practice some skills. There was one especially nuanced step in the protocol. Every year, literally every year, at least one group of students messed up this step. No matter what I did—highlight the step in the lab instructions, talk about it in the prelab remarks, have the TA go around and show everyone exactly what needed to be done – at least one group always messed it up.

I freely admit that historically my response to this inevitable mistake was not generous or encouraging. I’d sigh heavily to myself and wasn’t always successful in hiding my frustration from the students. I’d think, “Hadn’t I made it clear? Were students just not listening? Couldn’t they follow directions?” I’d typically ask the lab group to repeat the protocol so they could get it right but this meant at least several people, including me, stayed late and that just elevated my frustration.

On this particular day, the scene was typical: two thirds of the way through the lab period, I noted a buzz within a team of four. A mere glance in their direction alerted me to their distress, including impending tears. I instantly knew the inevitable had happened. I took a deep breath and headed their way, calculating in my head how long it was going to take them to repeat the protocol. But the moment I arrived, I realized I was being presented with the very situation on which I was working and the opportunity to try something different.

Needing my own time to figure out exactly what to do, I suggested that the women take five minutes to regroup—get a drink of water, walk around the building, do some deep breathing. By the time they returned, I had an idea. “Why don’t you all spend the next few minutes looking back over their protocol and data and figure out where things went wrong.”

A few minutes later, they had answers! “Well, I guess we weren’t really listening at the outset of lab, because we were all settling in and introducing ourselves.” “And we didn’t really understand what it meant to zero the instrument.” “There were four of us all helping out, and no one was really keeping track of the overall process; we each thought someone else was doing that step.” “It was all just a lot and we wanted to get finished.” These were great answers, and they reminded me of what I’d been reading about growth mindset, setting me up to respond appropriately.

“OK”, I replied. “All that is pretty normal. It takes a lot to coordinate across four people and three hours is a long time to keep your concentration and all this was new to you.”

I explained further, for myself as much as for them. “These kinds of mistakes are actually pretty common when doing a protocol for the first time or when you are not fully concentrating on the task at hand. The key to success in lab is to develop strategies that help you avoid these kinds of mistakes. Talk among yourselves for a few more minutes and come up with some strategies you can use in the future to avoid this kind of mishap.”

When I circled back around to their table, I was struck by how their demeanors had changed. The mini-crisis had been averted. Each of the women had reengaged and was solving problems, and their anxiety levels had dissipated. Again, they had good ideas: “Well, we could do a better job of carefully reading the instructions.” “When you say a step is important, we can star it in the protocol.” “We can be clearer in a team about who is doing which step.” “We could review our work part way through.” And the best answer: “We ought to ask questions when we aren’t sure what something means.” 

I left that lab feeling great. I know we all have stories like this—those joyful episodes in the classroom when something goes absolutely right. But this story has a little twist. The pivotal moment wasn’t only about my teaching; it was also about my own personal development. And I think there is a nugget of truth in this duality. Perhaps the things we struggle most with (growth mindset, intercultural communication, equity-minded pedagogy) in our classrooms are the things we are still personally working on. We can’t accomplish the thing in our classroom, because we have more to learn. When we use the synergy of working on ourselves and our pedagogy at the same time, we accelerate our success and find real joy in our work.

Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, most recently served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.

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