There Ain’t No Better Teacher Than A Mistake

… as long as it leads to a lesson learned.

learning_from_mistakesIt was a series of online sessions on instructional design that I was facilitating. The audience was a smart group, comprising mostly of people from HR and talent development. Needless to say, the session was very interactive, and as I had come to expect during the series, they were questioning me and challenging me at every juncture.

I was extolling the virtues of well-designed multiple choice questions, and to make the point about options which are grammatically incorrect and aren’t parallel with each other, I had used a question from Cathy Moore’s blog post on MCQs, by giving full credit to Cathy, of course. Here’s how the question read, along with the options.

We can confuse learners when we:
a. fail to actually complete the sentence we started in the question.
b. inconsistent grammar in the options.
c. sometimes we veer off into another idea entirely.
d. wombats.

One of the participants asked me what word ‘wombats’ means, and I confidently replied that the word doesn’t exist. He accepted my response, and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the question, and later that night, I thought I’d google it, just in case, to see if it had any meaning. And, to my surprise, I learned that wombats are short four-legged creatures which are native to Australia.

Caught off guard and a bit embarrassed, I nevertheless decided to share my newfound knowledge with participants. Here’s what I wrote in the designated discussion forum:

In Session 3, I had used a Multiple Choice Question borrowed from Cathy Moore’s blog, in which one of the options she had listed was ‘Wombats’. The point that Cathy (and I) was trying to make was that sometimes the options are so obviously incorrect that learners have no trouble guessing the right answer, thereby passing the test without understanding the topic or having to think about it.

One of you asked what is the meaning of ‘Wombats’, and I confidently replied “it’s not a word”. My confidence came from the understanding that Cathy frequently uses fictional names, places and situations. But I wanted to double check this, and when I did, to my surprise I found that Wombats are short-legged animals that are native to Australia.

Apologies for the confusion caused because of this.

Lesson learned: Do not assume anything.

It was a mistake I’d made, and my realization and subsequent sharing of the same with participants sparked a discussion unlike any other thread in the entire forum.

This got me thinking: So what can we do to leverage mistakes in the courses we design? How can we make it possible for the learner to ‘stumble upon’ mistakes, and glean lessons from them? Because after all, mistakes are seldom made randomly. They represent manifestations of long-held beliefs or misconceptions. We don’t want to frustrate learners of course, but their moment of realization can turn out to be a huge learning point for them.

Here are a few possible ideas:

1. Use them as options in scenarios, and provide detailed feedback. While the options can reflect the common misconceptions, extensive feedback against each of the incorrect options can help explain why the option is wrong, and what would work better in that scenario. Note that such feedback against the correct option would also work well, to consolidate the learner’s understanding of why that option is correct.

2. Where possible, have them justify their choice of options. So if a question reads “What is the beverage that has highest consumption in the world?”, no matter what their choice, have them answer a follow-up question which reads something like “Why do you think so?”. This can help them think through their answer, and possibly even correct their original choice.

3. Provide an option for learners to correct their mistakes and redo the scenario. This can help address any frustrations with early failure.

4. Run a scenario and make learners point out mistakes. This is very similar to the scenario in the first point above, except that here the learner doesn’t make the decisions. Instead, they get to point out the mistakes that another character in the scenario is making, a nice relief from the decision-making scenario, and another great way to learn.

5. Tell failure stories. We often get enamored in success stories, but they don’t always give the full picture, nor do they tell anything about the struggles that went into the process. Failure stories, on the other hand, can teach as well as inspire, and give a helping hand to students who make similar mistakes.

6. And last but not the least, it is not a bad idea to include them as part of your explanation. As in, call out a mistake that’s commonly made, and say “DON’T DO THAT!”.

Finally, it’s important for any learning event to emphasize a growth mindset so that learners do not associate mistakes with shame, and view them instead as learning opportunities. Of course, a single learning event would be hard-pressed to do something like this on its own, but we can always try, right?

What other strategies can you think of to lead learners from their moment of ‘oops’ to ‘ah-a’?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s