The Truth About Making Mistakes: Helping Students Discover the Benefits

As a teacher, do you have students who strive for perfection and show signs of anxiety or stress when they make mistakes? Help kids understand that there are legitimate benefits to making mistakes. Exactly what are the benefits of making mistakes?

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Why do students strive for perfection?

It’s no wonder that some students grapple with a desire for perfection and hold a strong disdain for making mistakes. Let’s face it, mistakes don’t feel good.  Failing to reach a goal can elicit discomfort, as well as feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment, and fear.  The anxiety that results may come from an immediate fear for safety or risk of harm, or it may stem from a competitive drive (with oneself or others).  Whatever the root cause, most people can agree that mistakes aren’t generally celebrated or revered in our society.  So, what can we do to help our students embrace their mistakes and reframe failures as opportunities for growth? How can we help them discover the benefits of making mistakes?

How does praise and reinforcement impact a student’s perception of failure?

When students are only reinforced for correct answers, we inadvertently mold them into people who are afraid to make mistakes.  In addition, the likelihood that students will take risks goes way down due to their fear of failure. After all, who wants to risk trying something new and failing when easy success is more safe and praiseworthy? Students won’t generally seek out challenging activities if they fear that classmates, parents, or teachers will perceive them as inadequate or stupid. We want our students to take risks and tackle challenging tasks. We want them to feel confident that it’s not the outcome, but instead their effort that defines success. Teachers can do this by encouraging and praising students for their drive, perseverance, motivation, and effort (more information about effective praise can be found here). In this way, students will be more likely to take healthy risks and accept their mistakes. Accepting mistakes alone doesn’t give us the whole picture, though. Let’s take this a step further and explore the benefits of making mistakes!

What are the benefits of making mistakes?  

1.  Kids learn from their mistakes.

A negative outcome decreases the likelihood that a student will repeat the same behavior(s) in the future. Their learning comes from analyzing the situation and choosing a different course of action when faced with similar circumstances.  As teachers and parents, it is wise to allow children to make mistakes.  As adults, we’ve already done, and will continue to do, our own learning.  When we consciously (or unconsciously) save our children from making mistakes, we rob them of an opportunity to grow.

2.  Mistakes foster responsibility and independence.

Take this scenario, for example. A student forgets their homework and faces a failing grade.  Yes, it’s devastating for the child (and perhaps even more devastating for the parent).  In the long run, does it benefit the child more if the teacher allows the student to call home and request that the parent bring the homework OR should the teacher require the student to accept the failing grade?  If your own child called you to bring their homework to school, would you do it? Here’s the dealio, friends… when children are young, the stakes are LOW.  Your child is not going to lose his/her job by virtue of forgetting their homework.  Their grade on an elementary report card is not going to impact their choices for college.  Allow children to experience natural consequences when the stakes are low so that when the stakes are high, the lesson has already been learned.  Fostering this independence at a young age is a gift that will give for the rest of the child’s life!

3.  Experiencing failure makes success more sweet!

If a child wins every single, solitary basketball game she ever plays, success is the expectation.  That endless success loses its meaning, and hence, the intensity of the reward becomes muted.  When students repeatedly experience loss and failure, the success that follows a boatload of hard work and dedication tastes better than a hot fudge sundae!  No, really!  Watch an underdog team win a championship.  There’s nothing better (unless, of course, you’re rooting for the opposing team).

4.  It takes the pressure off!

When a child knows that there are inherent benefits to mistake-making, it naturally takes the pressure off.  In some cases, the relief from high pressure might allow the child to hone their focus on achieving the goal. Without the anxiety and fear of failure, the child is able to use 100% of their brain power and attention to completing the task successfully.  This new outlook allows children to gain perspective and reframe their outlook: if I succeed, my mission is accomplished and if I fail, I learn something new about how to tackle the situation in the future.

5.  Mistakes help students become better problem solvers and critical thinkers.

A beneficial side effect of allowing children to make mistakes is the development of foresight, critical thinking, and problem solving. Students will be able to take themselves through a mental maze of “If this, then that…”.  For long term success, this is more effective than a preachy adult telling them what to do.

6.  Making mistakes improves memory and retention.

Would you believe me if I told you that students who are permitted to make mistakes show improved retention of information?  This study, conducted by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork at U.C.L.A. (2009) demonstrated that people retain information better and longer when they fail to retrieve the correct information on the first try.

The implications and applications for teachers are far reaching.  When teachers give students extended time to answer a question before providing them an answer, learning is enhanced.  Better yet, if the child attempts the question and fails, retention of the information is even higher.  Do you require students to preview comprehension questions prior to reading new information?  If you do, now ask them to attempt an answer to each question! Chances are they won’t be able to answer the questions prior to reading the content, but according to this research, the retention in students who make a failed attempt will be higher.

How do you actually TEACH students about the benefits of making mistakes?

The best time to teach students about the upside to making mistakes is when they actually make a mistake. Even though real world examples and teachable moments prove to be the most effective route, you can plant the seeds and weave these concepts into your daily teaching routines and activities.  My favorite picture book for teaching students about making mistakes is called The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett (if you are interested in the literature unit materials for this book, click here).

Exposing students to growth mindset concepts is also invaluable in helping them understand the inherent advantages of making mistakes.  If you’d like more information about growth mindset concepts, you can read these blog posts.  You can also check out these teaching posters, certificates, literature companions, and more.

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I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

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