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May 09, 2016

First, we had “Fail” memes. These came in the form of pictures showing people, animals, and even inanimate objects failing at various things (see here). Errors_help_us_learn.jpgThen, the “Epic Fail” memes emerged. This caption was reserved for failures that were, well, really incredible on the fail scale (see here). Despite the fact that these memes encourage us to laugh at other people’s mistakes, I think they’ve actually done us some good: they’ve made making mistakes a thing. And once it’s a thing, we can get students to buy-in to the idea that we should spend more time talking about them (and eventually more time learning from them).

Now that our students are preparing for final exams, we know this is the perfect time to help them take stock of their test-taking blind spots.

When it comes to the academic world, discussing our mistakes is not typically a fan favorite. For example, when a student goes into a test feeling confident about the material but comes back with a grade that doesn’t reflect her perceived level of preparedness, everyone’s wondering what went wrong. Sometimes this outcome results in negative internal self-evaluations (“I’m not smart enough,” or “I didn’t study hard enough”) or external explanations (“The test was way too hard,” or “My teacher did not prepare us for what would be on the exam”). In either case, though, I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone celebrating the poor grade.

But perhaps we should. When things go surprisingly awry, it’s a signal to us that there’s something going on that we don’t know about (but that we can find out about.) As Eduardo Briceño explains in his post “Why Understanding These Four Types of Mistakes Can Help Us Learn”, “learning from mistakes is not all automatic.” Since it’s not automatic, we Executive Function coaches play a critical role in building the habit of evaluating mistakes so that students can learn from them. Rather than seeing the errors as fuel for frustration, we want to help students celebrate them — since errors can tell us where our blind spots are.  

Different Approaches for Different Error Types

When we examine errors with the purpose of finding something worth learning, illuminating information emerges. Perhaps this student didn’t realize that she only completes the first two steps in three-part questions. When she analyzes this error on her exam, she’ll realize it’s an error of process, or how she goes about answering a test question. Once she figures this out, she’ll have saved herself from a fruitless return to the textbook. Forgetting to do a step is not a sign that she doesn’t know how to do that step; it’s a sign she’s forgotten the step even exists on the exam.

Of course not all errors are process ones. Let’s imagine that when her math test is returned, she notices that she’s losing points when calculating the surface area of a cylinder, but can’t figure out why. In this instance, revisiting the material could pinpoint the problem: she used the diameter instead of the radius in her formula. For content-related errors, class notes and texts are precisely where she should head when studying for her final exam.

When she’s figured out that some mistakes are process ones and some are connected to the content, she can go into her next exam using test preparation tips to help her navigate those blind spots.. When facing questions with multi-step directions in the future, she could utilize a visual cue to help her complete all of the tasks. Numbering each of the steps in the prompt and checking them off after each is completed would allow her to easily discern if anything is left unchecked. When she goes into math class, a mnemonic might be just the trick to get the content to stick. Since the formula for the surface area of a cylinder is 2 x pi x radius x height, she can use the beginning of each letter to create a silly but easy to remember sentence: two pies running home. And then she’ll recall that “r” is for running and for radius, preventing her from performing a disastrous calculation with the diameter instead.

So while making mistakes can make us feel lousy at first, remember that there’s a prospect for learning hiding among the errors. The key is to see the errors as opportunities to gain insight into our blind spots so we can prepare more efficiently — and take the next test or that final exam with greater confidence.  

Does your child need study tips for final exams? Executive Function coaches help students create and stick with their game plans for studying. Click below to find out more.


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About the Author

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.


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