Errors in Learning: Good or Bad?

It’s not an uncommon idea that when you’re learning something – especially something new – that you want to avoid making errors. Making errors strengthens them, much like running or lifting weights strengthens muscles, which makes them more likely to return when under pressure.

However, there’s a lot of very interesting research that shows that avoiding mistakes at all costs may not be the most effective or efficient way to learn.

While there’s a lot of research on this topic, this review article by Columbia University psychology professor Janet Metcalfe gives a broad and relatively brief overview of the advantage of errors.

How Can Errors Help in Learning

If you’re at all interested in improving your learning, or in ways to help your students, you should read the entire article. Although it is dense, it’s relatively easy to read and only 27 pages long.

Here are a few of the most interesting or unexpected findings from the article. There’s a lot more in the full thing (including information about where the idea of avoiding mistakes came from and how to manage the emotional consequences of this learning method):

  • Japanese math classes approach unfamiliar or new problems by first asking the students to attempt to solve them on their own. After struggling (and often failing) to solve the problem, the teacher will discuss the incorrect problem-solving strategies and why those methods don’t work, as well as showing them how to solve the problem correctly. This approach focuses more on underlying problem-solving strategies and how to apply previously learned principles to new problems rather than merely getting a correct answer.
  • In a test on memory and learning, participants were asked to remember loosely related word pairs. Participants who were given the first and second word had more trouble remembering the pair than participants who were given the first word and asked to guess the second word. The guess almost always generated an error, but these participants did a noticeably better job at remembering these word pairs when tested later.
  • When errors are made, it is very important for the learner to get feedback, although this feedback does not have to be immediate. The feedback should not only tell the learner whether they were right or wrong, but it should supply the correct answer (if the learner was wrong). The feedback can also provide an opportunity to explore the underlying principles and reasoning involved in both correct and incorrect answers (like the Japanese math classes mentioned above).
  • For the feedback to be effective, the learners need to be paying attention and processing the feedback. In a classroom setting, this can be relatively easy, but if the feedback is delayed or provided after the learner has stopped paying attention, that attention must be re-engaged for the feedback to be beneficial.
  • Asking young students to explain how they arrived at a particular solution is beneficial, but asking them to explain how an expert arrived at the correct solution can be even more beneficial.
  • In an experiment, participants were asked fact-based questions and asked to not only provide an answer but also rate their confidence in the answer being correct. Counterintuitively, participants who answered incorrectly and had high confidence in their wrong answers were more likely to have their answers be corrected when they were retested.

Read the entire Learning from Errors article here.

You may also find this post from 2017 interesting – why you should make mistakes on purpose.