David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Are Your Students Learning From Their Mistakes?

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My 7-year-old daughter has been taking piano lessons for almost two years now. Although it’s not always easy to get her to practice — OK, it’s never easy — my wife and I think it’s worth the difficulty. We’re pretty sure she’s not going to be a concert pianist, but we think the lessons will help her develop the skill of learning from her mistakes. As Carol Dweck’s “mindset” research has convincingly demonstrated, being able to see your failures and other setbacks as learning opportunities — and not as indications of lack of talent or intelligence — is crucial to achieving success in almost any pursuit.

I wrote about failure in my last column, and I’m continuing to think about it. What we do in the face of failure, or merely in the face of mistakes, seems to go a long way to determining how successful we’ll be. But as a lot of people point out, our systems of assessment in the college classroom don’t really help students develop the skill of learning from their mistakes.

Too often, the language we use in talking about grades is the language of accountability, of personal responsibility. “You earned it, not me,” we tell the students who complain about a low grade. I don’t let students redo shoddy work, and I know my policy is not unusual. But do such grading practices tell students that their mistakes mean more than their attitude toward those mistakes? If I want my students — like my daughter — to develop a patient and persevering attitude toward learning, shouldn’t the way I assess them encourage that?

I got to thinking more specifically about these issues after reading a blog post by middle-school teacher and education writer Jessica Lahey. In the run-up to the first important tests of the school year, Lahey worried that many of her students would do badly. But, she reasoned, “often a poor result on a test is just what some students need to get serious about figuring out what they were supposed to have learned in class.” Her students did indeed fare poorly, but Lahey used the tests, and their wrong answers, to help her students learn the difficult concepts they were struggling with. She made the students retake the test in class — in pairs, and this time with their books open — and had each pair explain not only why their chosen answer was correct, but why the other answers were wrong.

Another prominent writer on K-12 education, Rick Wormeli, has argued that we do students a disservice when we don’t allow them to redo assignments and tests. By grading students on how well they perform according to our schedule — we decide when the test is given, and if students haven’t learned the concepts by then, it’s their problem — we impose an arbitrary and unhelpful restriction on their learning process. “The goal,” Wormeli writes, “is that all students learn the content, not just the ones who can learn on the uniform timeline.”

Real learning comes from practice and from awareness of past missteps. When we don’t let students redo their graded work for credit, are we telling those students who did poorly that there’s no point in trying to learn from their mistakes? I see two main arguments here:

  • The first is that we unfairly reward students who get it right the first time, while penalizing those students who need more time to learn what’s being tested.
  • The second is that we discourage students from working to learn from their mistakes.

I’m actually not terribly bothered by the first argument. Perhaps because I don’t see grades as objective measures of student performance, I accept that when we assess students it’s necessarily a limited and imperfect snapshot of how they’ve done at one point in time. I harbor no illusions that their grades are truly accurate measures of how smart they are or how much they could learn if given enough time. They are simply a picture of how well they performed at a certain task at a certain point in the semester. As a teacher, I want to help those students who need more time to learn, but I’m not sure we need to overthrow our system of grading to achieve that aim.

The second argument — that our system of assessment actively discourages students from learning from their failures — is one I take seriously. If students who perform poorly are given no chance to improve their grade, they have very little incentive to look closely at why they did poorly. It’s not hard for me to see that allowing retakes and do-overs might be the right thing to do, pedagogically speaking.

In her 2014 book, Specifications Grading, Linda B. Nilson wrote about a grading system she developed, inspired by K-12 research, that seeks to answer these concerns by shifting the assessment focus to a simple question: Did students master the learning outcomes of the course? How they mastered them, and how long it took, don’t factor into grades in this system. Mastery, or lack thereof, is all. Betsy Barre, assistant director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, has written an excellent account of her experience adopting specifications grading. It’s worth reading and thinking about.

But most college instructors, I would guess, either don’t want to, or cannot totally remake the way they grade students. My department’s requirements, for instance, would make it impossible for me to use something like specifications grading in my classes. And the idea of allowing students to retake exams and redo assignments until they get them right seems like a logistical nightmare. It’s hard enough already to fit everything I have to teach into the semester; allowing redos just seems like it would add to my workload to an unsustainable degree.

In my next column, I’ll look at ways to deal with this issue without completely upsetting the apple cart. I’m convinced that we need to give students ample opportunities to learn from their mistakes. But I want to find ways to do that while taking into account the realities of the semester, and of instructors’ workloads.

How do you give your students a chance to improve on their failures? Let me know in the comments.

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