Should we avoid or embrace errors? A case for errorful learning | Winward Academy


Should we avoid or embrace errors? A case for errorful learning.

Some believe errors should be avoided at all costs. Spare learners the embarrassment and pain of faulty effort, the theory goes. In fact, academic views prominent 50 years ago warned that allowing people to make errors encourages them to practice incorrect, inefficient approaches.

Now, new viewpoints supported by robust findings suggest the complete opposite – that errorful learning is worthwhile and that students should be allowed — if not encouraged — to commit errors. Here’s the catch, though: after making these errors, students must immediately correct them.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University promotes a “growth mindset” – that’s the idea that intelligence grows as students learn from their mistakes. Dr. Dweck argues that error-resilient thinking leads to enhanced learning.

Her position has been validated by extensive research concluding that learning is optimized when students follow these steps: (1) make mistakes; (2) receive supportive, corrective feedback; and (3) redo the questions having learned from the errors. Feedback is a critical step because without it students will not know how to explore or analyze the reasoning that led to their mistakes.

What’s the takeaway?

We shouldn’t push students to assiduously avoid errors while they’re in low-stakes situations, like homework, in-class work, or practice tests. In fact, those low-stakes situations are the perfect place for them to err so they can then learn and perform optimally when the stakes are high on midterms, finals, the ACT, or the SAT. According to Dr. Janet Metcalfe of Columbia University, errors don’t inhibit but enhance later memory for and generation of correct responses. By reviewing mistakes, students learn actively and direct their attention appropriately.

How does Winward Academy honor these findings that errorful learning is the best approach? We specifically built our platform to follow the steps enumerated above. Our goal is to give students a safe place to commit and correct errors, so they’ll know the content as second nature once they’re taking the test that counts.

  • Step 1: students have access to 7,000 practice questions from past ACT and SAT exams, so they have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes.
  • Step 2: every single question has an on-demand, step-by-step explanation video to provide the supportive feedback needed to not only learn the right answer but also to understand what was missed and why.
  • Step 3: we automatically save missed questions into students’ personal Mistake Banks, so it’s easy for them to redo previously missed questions anytime.

Real learning will occur when mistakes are integrated into — rather than avoided during — the learning process. Avoiding errors at all costs may be counterproductive.

Dr. Jace Hargis, the preeminent author of numerous scholarly articles on the effectiveness of teaching, sums it up best by saying that error tolerance (not error avoidance) should be the new standard – that is the ideal way to encourage students’ active engagement and exploratory reasoning.

We at Winward Academy agree.


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About Winward Academy – Winward Academy is one of the world’s leading innovators in the online education space, providing web-based academic support that enhances students’ knowledge, confidence, and competitiveness in middle and high school academics and in college applications. We help thousands of students every year by providing personalized, comprehensive ACT and SAT test preparation and extensive math curriculum support. The Winward Academy learning platform honors over 40 years of education and cognitive psychology research, incorporating proven techniques that promote effective learning.

Winward Academy’s unmatched reputation is wholly attributable to our students’ exceptional success and to the trust earned among students, parents, and schools around the world.

Jennifer Winward, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Winward is a renowned college instructor, a distinguished 20-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her Ph.D. specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with highest distinction honors. Dr. Winward has been widely recognized for her academic success, published research, and philanthropic efforts with awards from the President of the United States, the California State Assembly, Rotary International, the Marin County School Administrator Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Science Foundation.

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