Mistakes on Tests Crucial to Learning

Thanks to our illus­ory superi­or­ity we con­sist­ently over­es­tim­ate our per­form­ance on tests, and, without qual­ity feed­back, rap­idly become obli­vi­ous to the gaps in our know­ledge. Fur­ther­more, many con­sider test­ing to be an inef­fec­tu­al tool for assess­ing per­form­ance and errors to be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive to learn­ing.

Chal­len­ging this pre­con­cep­tion is research sug­gest­ing that mak­ing mis­takes on tests–and being informed of them–is an integ­ral part of the learn­ing pro­cess.

We tend to assume that the best way to con­sume and remem­ber inform­a­tion is through the applic­a­tion of rig­or­ous, exten­ded study. What we fail to see, however, is that the pro­cess of try­ing to work through a prob­lem to which we don’t know the answer focuses our atten­tion on it in a way that simply study­ing it does not. The desire to get the answer right, and the frus­tra­tion of fail­ure, is partly to account.

But there’s anoth­er ele­ment as well. When we struggle to learn some­thing, and fail, the moment we finally get the answer it imprint­s itself more deeply on our mind than it would have had struggle and fail­ure not pre­ceded it. […]

If I had to identi­fy one over­arch­ing les­son from  our study it would be this: When you make mis­takes, don’t just let them slip by – cor­rect them. Cre­ate chal­len­ging learn­ing envir­on­ments, make mis­takes and then learn from them.

There is much in com­mon here with the evid­ence-based approach to teach­ing.

1 thought on “Mistakes on Tests Crucial to Learning

  1. Simon Bostock

    This is an inter­est­ing one.

    There’s a shed­load writ­ten on learn­ing from suc­cess vs fail­ure (my per­son­al wiki is groan­ing with stuff that I’ll one day get round to sum­mar­ising or stick­ing on Trailm­eme).

    And the evid­ence you cite above is com­pel­ling.

    But, in many ways, it’s as little value as any of the oth­er ‘this is the best way to teach’ ideas. Giv­ing feed­back is hard to an indi­vidu­al, to a class it’s a real skill. And nobody teaches it – pos­sibly because it’s unteach­able (at the moment).

    So you end up with ‘teach­ers who give con­tinu­al feed­back and offer cor­rec­tion are really good but we’re not sure how they do it.”

    That’s defeat­ist, though, and no reas­on to not build it into any kind of learn­ing activ­ity.

    An obser­va­tion, though, based on per­son­al exper­i­ence:-
    If I’m a teach­er (or train­er or whatever) and I don’t offer reg­u­lar feed­back, nobody will com­plain or get upset. The effects of the lack of feed­back will be felt – but after I’m long gone.
    If I’m a teach­er and I offer feed­back and the learner takes offence or gets upset then I get into trouble and my happy sheet scores suf­fer.

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