Bungle and blunder: Give yourself room to be wrong and it will be all right!

  • October 28, 2019

It turns out that our obsession with being right all the time is unfounded. Our minds, the incredible resilience and thinking machines that they are, seem to be built for mistakes and correction more than a straight trajectory into absolute linear understanding and learning.

An article recently published in the neuroscience journal Memory titled Learning from your mistakes: does it matter if you’re out in left foot, I mean field? outlines the data for us to finally be at ease with making mistakes. And, for us parents, we need to be all right with our kids making mistakes, too!  Do we get to sit on bad judgment and errors? Well, no, but a misstep is just a path to longer retention and better comprehension. 

Toronto based Neuroscientists Andree Ann Cyr and Nicole D. Anderson have released a study that points to a benefit for us in making mistakes when we are learning. Our expectations often fall in the need for us to be right when we learn and there should be minimal margin of error.

The study gave non-Spanish speakers a series of new vocabulary to learn in Spanish with non-related vocabulary pairs and another set of participants a pair of new vocabulary with related English cognates. Both experiments show that errors benefit memory to the extent that they overlap semantically with targets. Participants were better able to learn the vocabulary words in Spanish where they guessed a close word in the target language, even if they missed the words initially. Other participants learning new words who guessed the correct English paired words or who made a guess too far from the initial target word had difficulty in retaining the information in both cases.  

“Our research found evidence that mistakes that are a ‘near miss’ can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all,” says Dr. Nicole Anderson, “These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily.” In anticipation of learning new information, students should have a framework in place of what they will learn and a reference point for the new information. Otherwise, it will seem like a shot in the dark. 

As humans learn, our retention and memory for the right information improves if we initially make a mistake or have a ‘near miss’ in learning and need to reinforce the information as opposed to learning the information correctly the first time through. This type of discovery opens the doors for us to acquire information in less of a straight line as the human brain does not take in information in pure lecture form as well as it might if we give ourselves a chance to try, fail and pursue information again. 

“Even if a person makes a mistake while testing themselves, as long as their error is close to the right answer, they’re more likely to remember the right information,” adds Dr. Anderson. The study itself points to the retrieval benefits of relating concepts to prior knowledge before learning new information. This may shift our understanding slightly in the ways that a student will need to work ahead of time before the intake of new information. As a result, our instructors may need to anticipate incoming information and make sure there is a framework in place for reference points to allow for these mistakes to be constructive and instructional. 

Our conclusion from this study might make our families re-think the value of the old adage “an educated guess.”  Perhaps mistakes and the skillset to learn from them should be given far more deference in academia. We need to give ourselves enough time as we learn to fail – this is why we study! – instead of cramming or trying to fly through a test where the information isn’t imprinted yet. 

What can we do?  Allocate enough time and space to pave the way for the information our students need to learn. Teach skills to identify mistakes and make the self-correction with ample time to process the information. 

If our end-goal is actualized, life-long-learners, we should be working towards a space for mistakes, learning, and processing. We should also take the task as teachers seriously and not take the shortcut of giving an answer when the process of learning and understanding is so valuable. 


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