4 Steps to Help Students Learn from Their Mistakes

While there is no way to take away the sting of poor grades and dashed hopes, there are ways we can help our students cope with failure in a constructive and resilient way. Here are four steps to help students face failure productively and develop resilience.

1. Acknowledge negative emotions.
When I first learned about Carol Dwecks’ book, Mindsets, I was eager to help students see mistakes and errors in a new way. So, when student came to me with a poor grade on a math test, I said, “Great! Let’s learn from this!” He looked at me like I had two heads. It does not feel good to fail at something. We have to start by acknowledging the negative emotions that attend the feeling of failure in whatever form they take (sorrow, anger, hopelessness). Instead of celebrating a poor grade, I am now more likely to relate a time when I failed at something and how that made me feel.

2. Turn failure into an opportunity to learn life lessons.
Failure is important. When we fail, we have the opportunity to learn what we can do differently to be more successful. This is a key tenet of Carol Dweck’s Mindsets, and this philosophy has been reiterated by countless famous scientists, celebrities, politicians, etc. While step one is acknowledging the hurt that was caused by the failure, step two is encouraging your students to see their poor grade as a learning opportunity. A poor grade is not a ‘good’ thing, but it is an ‘interesting’ thing. You can relate this to failures you have faced and describe how your learned from them, or you can share an example pertinent to your child’s interests (e.g., the story of a famous musician or athlete).

3. Try to understand what went wrong.
Do a simple analysis. What did the student do well? Where did he or she miss points? Create a checklist and tally up repeated errors. This sort of analysis is more valuable than test corrections alone because it will help the student think about what to do differently next time. What were their most common mistakes? Why did they make those mistakes? (For more on the self-checking strategies, see Chapter 11 of Executive Function in Education or Unit 6 of SMARTS).

4. Help your student understand how to use that knowledge to make changes for the future.
Now that you’ve had a chance to look for common errors, it’s time to come up with a plan for how to address them proactively. What can your student do differently on the next test? For example, on a math test they might need to spend an extra minute double checking to ensure that when they multiplied two negatives they ended with a positive. On a science test, they might need to be extra careful when they see a problem with a diagram. If they can identify the challenging areas beforehand, they have a much better chance of succeeding the next time.

No one enjoys failing, and we need to acknowledge that, but failure is not fatal. It is a call to be courageous and to learn more about ourselves. Help your students face this challenge, and they will learn a lesson that will not only assist them on their next test, but in all the tests that life sends their way.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director