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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