Leverage errors to improve student learning

November 10, 2020 | Claudia Stanny

Leverage errors to improve student learning

No one enjoys making mistakes or finding an error in their thinking. However, error identification and error correction are powerful learning tools. Although experts perform fluidly with few errors, their expertise is attained through deliberate practice, which entails a focus on error-prone aspects of skills and use of feedback about errors to correct and refine thinking and behavioral skills (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch- Römer, 1993). Similarly, Bjork (1994, 2013) has documented the value of “desirable difficulties,” the experience of errors and challenges that require effortful problem-solving for high-quality learning. Although popular media often praises the value of “learning from failure,” both instructors and students underutilize learning from mistakes as a teaching strategy (Pan, et al., 2020).

Leveraging the experience with and correction of errors as meaningful learning tools requires convincing students that effective study includes reflection on mistakes, processing instructor feedback, and revising work to correct errors early. Instructors should also take care to ensure that tasks that generate errors will also focus student attention on key areas that will benefit from error identification and correction: misconceptions, false assumptions, and practice with challenging thinking skills. Pan and colleagues (2020) report that both students and instructors avoid situations that generate errors, even when these experiences have been shown to enhance learning. They offer several learning activities that create opportunities to experience and benefit from the correction of errors during learning.

Learning activities that enable productive use of errors to enhance learning

  • Reading pre-tests. Many textbooks provide pre-reading questions but few students answer these questions before beginning the reading. However, students who answer these questions (even if they answer them incorrectly) retain more information from the reading than students who do not attempt to answer the questions.
  • Peer instruction “clicker questions.” Create clicker questions that elicit student belief in an erroneous assumption or misunderstanding of disciplinary content. These are questions that include incorrect responses that endorse a common false belief or interpretation. Share the variety of student answers and ask students to discuss their responses with a partner before beginning the peer discussions. Typically, students who answered correctly will correct the misunderstandings of their partners during this peer instruction period. Instructors should reinforce this peer instruction with their own discussion of the question, explicitly describing why the correct response is correct and why the other responses are not correct. In some cases (e.g., physics or chemistry), the instructor can include a demonstration that empirically validates the correct response if the question poses an experiment and the responses make competing predictions about the outcome. Repeat the clicker question following instruction to provide an opportunity for all students to answer the question correctly and document their short-term learning.
  • Practice tests. Students and instructors think of tests primarily as evaluations of past learning. However, tests can function as learning activities because the questions require students to practice retrieving information from memory and applying disciplinary concepts to real-world applications. To gain the full learning benefit of tests, students must review incorrect answers and use these to correct their thinking and identify areas that require further study. Students are often overconfident about their learning at the end of a study session. A practice test helps students calibrate their judgments about learning and focus future study activities on the areas that need the most improvement.



Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalff & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp 185-2015), MIT Press.

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64 (1), 417-444. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100 (3), 363-406. 

Pan, S. C., Sana, F. Samani, J., Cooke, J., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Learning from errors: students’ and instructors’ practices, attitudes, and beliefs. Memory, 28 (9), 1105-1122. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2020.1815790

11/10/2020 ajc