October 16th, 2018 E-Learning

“Learn from your mistakes” is a common adage. How does it apply to e-learning?

Mistakes are a part of learning. If your learners never make a mistake, chances are the material wasn’t sufficiently advanced or challenging enough. And yet, in spite of this, lessons which are designed to help students learn from errors are underutilized in many online classrooms.

Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. For as much as most of us have heard about the great benefits of trial and error, designing a course in this manner takes longer. More importantly, many learners struggle with the concept of failure at all. They either panic at the first misstep, or else move on too quickly without addressing their errors.

Fortunately, by helping your learners take a closer look at their mistakes, you can improve their results both in the immediate and long term. Here’s how.

1. Make failure an option.

First off, if your learners are going to gain any useful insight from their mistakes, failure can’t be permanent. There may be some places where learners can’t redo tests or assignments, but by and large, your learning environment needs to be structured in such a way that it accommodates error.

This also means you should actively destigmatize failure. Let your learners know that you don’t expect them to pass every test with flying colors. If they don’t pass a test, you have course mechanisms in place to help them try again.

2. Offer more feedback than a simple pass/fail.

What form of quizzing do you use, and what sort of feedback does it provide? For many courses, quizzes simply show which questions a learner answered incorrectly without supplying any information about why the learner failed the question. Others may show the correct answer as well as the wrong answer, but this is only a marginal improvement.

Consider a true/false quiz: if a learner misses an answer, they know what the correct answer should have been by default. But that doesn’t give them any context for the question which might help them remember the correct answer in the future.

Instead of merely marking a quiz, include extra details about the answers. For instance, if you ask what year the Berlin Wall fell and a learner answers incorrectly, instead of simply saying “the Berlin Wall fell in 1989,” you could give a more complete explanation such as:

“The fall of the Berlin Wall began in November 1989 following a series of revolutions and protests in neighboring Eastern Bloc states, which together resulted in the fall of the Iron Curtain and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.”

By adding more details to your answer feedback, learners can place the information you want them to remember within a broader context that may spark more associations and help them remember the lesson in the future.

3. Let your students identify and correct their own mistakes.

When I studied math in high school, my teacher used to mark incorrect answers on homework, but the offer a half-point of credit back if I could find my mistake and return a correct answer. Doing so not only offered a motivation for me to examine my work more carefully, it was also a powerful learning opportunity.

In most cases, my math mistakes were simple transcription errors. I forgot to carry a minus symbol from one step to the next, or left out one of the factors in the equation. Looking more closely at the problems helped me realize that I wasn’t bad at math—in fact, I was almost correct most of the time. And it encouraged me to work more carefully in the future.

Offering your learners a second shot to look more closely at their work not only helps them remember the mistake so as to avoid it in the future, but gives them confidence when they find where they went wrong.

4. Pose difficult problems that challenge critical thinking.

If you view mistakes as a learning opportunity, that changes the way you can pose problems in your lessons. So long as achieving a correct answer is critical for a student’s success, you’ll feel a temptation to write questions that are within easy reach of the average student.

There’s nothing wrong with simple tests to check comprehension, but while these offer basic reassurance that a learner is following along with the material, they usually aren’t complex enough for a learner to think deeply about how to apply their new knowledge.

On the other hand, if learners are expected to have to puzzle away at a challenge, test theories, and try again when one solution doesn’t work out, they’ll not only feel more accomplished when they do reach the correct solution, they’ll also remember the concept better.

5. Use mistakes as a signal for which areas need more attention.

Different students will find different material challenging. If you treat all material equally, penalizing a learner for not grasping one concept correctly the first time while glossing over the material that is easier to grasp, then the time they spend on the material they don’t understand will be evenly weighted against the concepts they already know.

On the other hand, if your goal in setting a test or a scenario is to identify sticking points, you can more effectively target the areas where learners need to focus the bulk of their attention.

You can learn from you learner’s mistakes, too.

Any teacher can tell you that some concepts are just as difficult to teach as they are to learn. A good instructor sees a consistent sticking point in their lessons and recognizes it as a sight that their own lesson structure needs to evolve.

You can help your learners with those areas by devoting more attention to the subject and adding rich content. A strong visual, such as an infographic, or an interactive scenario might help an abstract concept hit home.

Finally, remember that when a learner fails, how they fail can be almost as important as success. Particularly on challenging questions, each learner may find a unique way to produce a wrong answer. These mistakes can reveal a lot about a learner’s thought process, as well as how they absorb your lessons.

So, next time your learners struggle with a test, turn it into a teaching moment. Send them an encouraging email, and help them turn their setback into a success.

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