Helping Students Learn from Mistakes

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Helping Students Learn from MistakesI’ve never made a mistake . . . said no one ever!

I’ve made so many mistakes I’ve lost track—too many to count and many too insignificant to remember. Making mistakes is a natural part of being human. It’s the learning process we all go through to make changes. Some of those changes can be positive, while other changes can be negative. It all depends on the responses to the mistake.

Behavioral science tells us that the reactions we get upon making mistakes (and how we perceive those reactions) shape our self-beliefs, levels of confidence, and self-esteem. To build optimism, resilience, and happiness, students must learn how to learn from their mistakes in a positive and supportive manner.

Think back to a time when you were in the early stages of learning a game or sport. Think of a mistake you made—maybe you fumbled the ball or played the wrong piece. What you heard from others about your performance had an impact on your feelings of competence and affected your willingness to try again. A response like, “You should have known better than to throw the ball to first base,” tells me I wasn’t smart enough about the game and destroys my confidence to make a decision in another stressful situation.

Making mistakes happens all the time in our lives. It’s a constant in the classroom. How we respond to students’ mistakes can have a positive or negative impact on their learning and achievement. Here are six ideas for helping students find value in and learn from their errors.

  1. Mistakes should not be considered poor performance or lack of ability. Mistakes are the natural outcome of trying. Sometimes the things we try work, and sometimes they don’t. Help students see the mistake for what it’s worth—simply a try that didn’t work.
  2. Correct or redirect in a positive and encouraging manner. Our brain generally reacts to negative stimuli more than positive. It typically takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative. Therefore, it is essential that we make our interactions with students during the learning process as positive as possible.
  3. Avoid using negative language when guiding the student. Rather than saying, “Don’t do it that way.” Say, “You may want to try it this way.” As stated above, we need more positives to outweigh the negatives.
  4. Question your students to understand their process. I will often say to students, “Help me understand your thinking.” This statement does not indicate that they are wrong—it lets them know that their thinking process is not clear to others.
  5. Show students examples of quality work. Often, kids are not clear about what we want in a final product. Keep examples of good student work from year to year so you can show students what others have produced.
  6. Share how you deal with making mistakes. Our students must see us as examples of how to learn and grow from mistakes. Tell your students about times you’ve made mistakes and how you dealt with them both positively and negatively. Keep the focus on what you learned from the mistake and how staying positive was far more powerful than ruminating on the negative.

In today’s world, instant gratification is a way of life. Sometimes making mistakes can slow the process down or delay the gratification, causing students to give up quickly. We need to help our students learn that speed is not necessarily always productive. Some may think that making mistakes is a sign of weakness. It is only a weakness when you don’t learn from the experience. By being positive and supportive during the mistake-making process, we can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, and build up enjoyment in the classroom.

Please share with me other strategies you have found that help students through the mistake-making process.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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