Renaissance scientists saw intelligent critique of their work as positive, something that would benefit their own, and the whole body of human knowledge. When a scientist took the time to disprove an idea, everyone took a step towards a better understanding of the world. The scientific method is based on failure and correction.
By contrast, the notorious psychologist B. F. Skinner felt that when learners make mistakes it’s a result of poor instruction and is counterproductive to learning. During the 1950s and 1960s he pushed for the adoption of teaching techniques based on “error less learning” – where learners were presented with small pieces of information, and immediately quizzed on them. This made it very hard to make mistakes. Although it might have felt good, and like it was working, we know now that testing short-term memory is not effective and that errors are an integral part of pushing ourselves to learn. However, Western society as a whole hasn’t got the memo. Many of the students I meet still see mistakes as a personal failure and will do anything to avoid making them, even if that means cheating in tests. It may also be reinforced by educators who believe that if students make mistakes, it’ll be these mistakes that they learn. In fact, when corrective feedback is used, the opposite happens.
Fear of failure often leads students to fear trying at all. Many students prefer to succeed at nothing than to fail at something. They avoid the kinds of risks and experimentation essential for higher level learning and creativity. This can reduce their performance in tests, by tying up a significant proportion of working memory with concerns like “Am I making mistakes?” and “Will I fail this test?”
So how to reframe their perspective?
Help students understand that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn, and that taking risks can have large rewards. A tutor can encourage this As much by supportive body language and actions as by explanatory words. If you verbally encourage a student that it’s okay to try and fail, and then you look disappointed every time they make a mistake, they’ll absorb the disappointment more than the encouragement.
One good trick is to insist students give you an answer even if they don’t know the right one. If they really don’t know, they can say a random word like “pasta”. This can lighten the mood and nurture an atmosphere where mistakes can be made freely without fear of judgement. Let your students see that you make mistakes too.
Share stories of mistakes you’ve made, and what you learnt from them. If you make a mistake in a lesson, how you deal with it will affect how students learn to deal with their own. Avoid trying to cover it up. Don’t chastise yourself in front of them. Admit it and move on with a smile.