Teaching Strategies: Learning From Our Mistakes

Teaching Strategies: Learning from our Mistakes

If you’re reading this post after Robyn’s most recent newsletter piece and tip sheet on Keeping Promises, you may be thinking about the promises to students that you have made, mangled, and managed to keep. As I read her tip sheet, one of the “promises worth keeping to our students” stood out to me:

7. I promise to help you learn from your mistakes and show you how to get better at learning.

This one took me a long time to figure out in my own classroom, and I continue to practice it as I work with both teachers and students. In my first several years as an English teacher, I thought I was helping students learn from their mistakes when I spent hours writing comments on their papers and grading the work that I handed back. And when I deducted points for late or incomplete work, surely they must have been learning from their mistakes. But it seemed like those same kids kept making those same mistakes over and over.

What I found out through trial and error is that I was taking only the first step in that process. I was showing students that they had made a mistake. Sometimes I could get them to remember that they always made a certain mistake. A few of those kids even felt bad or stupid when they saw the mistake pointed out again and again.

Unfortunately I wasn’t doing a very effective job at helping my students learn from their mistakes or at showing them how to get better at learning. One day I had a very upset 7th grade student, we’ll call her Shana, come to me with her paper in one hand, a low C full of comments, and her friend’s paper, an A, in the other. “How come her paper is good and mine is bad?” she asked, “Mine is just as long.”

I realized that, unlike me, Shana hadn’t spent an entire Saturday reading 100 versions of this paper and seeing how they stacked up. She had only seen her own work and, despite my comments, she really didn’t get how to make it better.

After checking to make sure her friend was okay with us using her work, Shana came in at lunch and we spent 15 minutes looking back at the assignment sheet and rubric, reading her paper and comparing it to her friend’s. I was able to put my comments in context and explain how they connected to what the assignment asked for versus what she had written. At the end of our conversation, she seemed satisfied. Shana really understood why her paper earned a C while her friend’s earned an A. She was able to talk about the work more objectively rather than just feeling angry and criticized. We had another similar assignment shortly thereafter and she did much better.

After this assignment, I shared with Shana’s entire class some anonymous examples from another class and we talked about what made them high quality work. Students reviewed the comments on their own papers with a partner and compared their work to the exemplars. I saved a few copies of C and D papers and used them anonymously a couple of years later (once their authors were safely in high school) so that students could practice explaining why these examples didn’t meet the standard. I even saved a few with the most commonplace mistakes and had students analyze them before the assignment was due, giving them the chance to check their own work and fix up any similar problems.

Looking back, I’m thankful that my frustrated student marched up to my desk with her friend’s paper in hand and demanded to know why they weren’t the same. She taught me how to help her learn from her mistakes – and how to transform criticism into progress. In the process I think I kept promise #10: “I promise to learn alongside you.”

–Claire Lambert

  • […] that they have failed, they don’t get immediate feedback from their failure that shows them how to do better next time.  In school, failure is not a natural part of the learning process; it is something to be avoided […]

  • […] written in the past about how to help our students learn from their mistakes but I think it is really important that we practice what we preach. We’ve got to do a better job […]

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