Help Your Students Learn from Their Mistakes

But first, help them make some!

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Making mistakes and using them as information for how to do better next time is an important part of learning. Why is it easier for some students to take mistakes in stride and learn from them, while others become stressed, frustrated, disengaged, or despondent in the wake of setback? Why do some students seem desperately afraid to make any mistakes at all?

The answer to both of these questions is, mindset.

What is Mindset?


Mindset describes the underlying, mostly unconscious, beliefs people have about learning. Do you believe you can get better at something through the right kind of effort? Of course, as parents and educators we believe the answer is a resounding, yes! In addition to classroom experience, advances in neuroscience confirm that the brain is more malleable than we ever knew. Students can get smarter, and it turns out if they believe their brains can grow, it is more likely to do so because they will behave differently.


Dr. Carol Dweck is a leading researcher on mindsets. Her work shows us that a focus on either a performance goal or a learning goal produces two very different students. An example of a performance goal would be something like “looking smart” or “getting a good grade”. A learning goal would be “understanding how to do a math problem” or “getting better at reading”.


A student with a performance goal might be worried about appearing smart, and will avoid challenging work in order to avoid making mistakes, which risks making her appear less smart. A student with a learning goal will engage in work she finds interesting in order to learn more, with the understanding that improvement is a process that takes time and effort. When she makes mistakes, she will persist because she understands that mistakes can be corrected through change.


Dweck would say that the first student has a fixed mindset and the second student has a growth mindset. Students with a fixed mindset do not believe their abilities can change, but are set in stone. Students with a growth mindset believe they can improve and grow (Clear, 2017).


Impact of Mindset


A student’s mindset determines her motivation, effort, and approach to challenges (Clear, 2017). Research expanding upon Dweck’s theory confirms that student success does not rely as much on cognitive capability (intelligence) as it does on mindset. Let’s rephrase that to make sure it sinks in: Believing you can become smarter is more important to success than actually being smart. This belief, this mindset, is a determining factor when it comes to self-worth, attainable opportunities, and achievement (Zolfagharifard, 2017).


A student with a fixed mindset sees challenges as risky. Mistakes, or failure, could call into question her basic abilities or even prove that she doesn’t have abilities she cherishes. A student who believes her abilities are changeable is more likely to embrace challenges and persist despite failure. In fact, students with growth mindset come to see challenges as opportunities for abilities to be developed. They see setbacks or feedback as useful information to help their learning. These students therefore put in more time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement (Clear, 2017).


Fixed mindset also results in increased student stress. In a July 2015 study, 33% of US elementary and secondary students reported feeling some kind of test anxiety. This number has increased 10-15% over the past decade, which correlates with some of the most recent changes to testing (Parents Across America, 2015). Anxiety, in general, inhibits optimal performance and leaves students feeling drained and more susceptible to burnout. Moreover, students with growth mindsets have an innate advantage over their fixed mindset peers in that their resilience makes them less likely to succumb to the high-stress environment that comes with testing situations (Zolfagharifard, 2017).


How can we foster a growth mindset in our kids?

It’s about more than getting kids to “try”.


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Research tells us that students’ mindsets are heavily influenced by the type of learning environment they are in and by the feedback they receive from teachers, parents, and peers (Zolfagharifard, 2017). This is promising because it tells us that mindsets are adaptable and can be developed. Teachers and parents have the power to help orient student’s outlook towards growth and self-efficacy.




Two things teachers and parents can do to foster self belief in their students:

  1. Create a supportive environment where students feel safe to make mistakes.

  2. Change the kind of feedback we give students so that it focuses on the learning process instead of the mistake or success.


Lay the groundwork for mindset change by creating an accepting, understanding environment where students feel they are supported. We all feel more comfortable making mistakes in places where we feel there are people who have our backs. As educators and parents, it is our responsibility to create an environment (physical and mental) in which a growth mindset can flourish.


Show your students you’re invested in them by asking them how they are doing and then listening. Simply checking in with your students and letting them express themselves helps them feel cared for, and it’s an important and easy exercise for their emotional health. Especially, talk about emotions and how they connect to a student’s experience. Communicating about emotions, and their causes and effects, guides students to figure out their needs and voice them appropriately. For example, if a student is feeling frustrated in her learning, having a conversation that figures out why she is feeling frustrated can help her (perhaps with the help of her teacher) figure out what to do next in order to make progress.


Emotions serve as valuable information to help students recognize what is working, what isn’t, and what additional or different resources she might need to succeed. Don’t be afraid of opening up the conversation about emotions in your classroom! There’s a ton of research showing how far it goes in making students feel more supported in the classroom, and certainly it helps them build important social and emotional skills.


Go further with programs like YouHue and introduce social and emotional learning (SEL) to your classroom. YouHue helps your students identify their emotions in the moment and put into words how they are feeling. This helps teachers get a better understanding of the emotional issues occurring in their own classrooms, so they can be solved more easily and effectively. Small SEL exercises can go a long way toward helping your students learn to cope with their emotions and become more confident in themselves, their communication, self-control, empathy, and problem solving skills.


The second thing we can do to help our students is change the kind of feedback we give. Dweck’s research explains that even in children who exhibit superb talent or intelligence, praise revolving around these successes actually ruins motivation and lowers academic performance (Zolfagharifard, 2017). It can be harmful to tell students that they are smart because when they eventually do struggle in school, they might think it means they’re not smart after all. Feedback about outcome like scores or other status symbols guides kids toward a fixed mindset, even if the feedback is positive.


However, the solution is not simply to praise children for “trying”. In fact, this is a common misconception that can have detrimental effects (Zolfagharifard, 2017). Blind effort doesn’t lead to learning. Imagine if a student completes a math test, gets several answers wrong, and the only strategy she has for correcting them is to “keep trying”. Further, praising effort that was not effective doesn’t guide her toward progress. What she needs is strategies for how to learn from her mistakes so she has a higher chance for success the next time she tries.


Through the kind of feedback we give, we can teach children to have a learning reaction to a success or a setback. Feedback should guide and praise the learning process, and show how effort created learning progress or success.


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Questions you can start asking more are:


“What did you try?”

“What is this teaching us?”

“What can we do next?”


These questions are examples of feedback that show students how effort created learning progress. They guide them in how to turn successes or mistakes into learning. At the end of the day, truly supporting growth mindset development in our students is more than about saying the right things. Let these questions guide change in the way you teach as a parent or educator. Offer more critical and insightful feedback to your students and give them opportunities to revise their work and enact the learning process. Parenting and teaching practices need to embody growth mindset principles.


When giving feedback, show how effort created learning progress or success. Many parents and teachers try to protect a student’s confidence by focusing on the child’s ability and reassuring them of what they’re good at. This reinforced a fixed mindset, especially because they also tend to rush in to anxiously reassure the child during moments of failure. “It’s okay, you’re good at other things.” What the child gets from this is that what she failed in must have been important (she perceives the adult’s anxiety over her failure) and that her ability is fixed (the adult comforted her instead of focusing on strategies for improvement).


React to failure as something that enhances learning by asking, “What did you try?” “What is this teaching us?” “What can we do next?”


Also point children to resources they have available that can help them next time. Maybe it’s extra time with you, another look through a section of a textbook, an online video, or a Google search. Show students that it is a combination of hard work, effective strategies, and good use of resources that lead to better learning.


Finally, regularly remind your students how the learning process works, “When you work on figuring out a new math problem, it grows your brain!”


Even simply adding the word “yet” to the end of a sentence: “You didn’t get this question right, yet.” Also make sure your students know when to ask for help and when to use resources that are available.


Remember that a student might have a growth mindset in one area but not in another. Certain triggers might prompt them to switch to a fixed mindset. Perhaps math is a particularly problematic area in which the student simply switches off their growth mindset, saying, “That’s not for me. I’m just not good at math.” This is something to watch out for especially with STEM related material.


Get Growing!


It’s never too early or too late. Mindset shows itself as early as 3 or 4 years old, but can be shaped at any age.

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Explain to your kids that their brains are like muscles. By the way, that makes you their trainer! It’s you who will coach them to practice the best exercises or learning strategies that will help them grow. This will help them make mistakes, be resilient, and turn experience bit by bit into learning. It will help your students engage in deeper, more joyful learning.


Along the way, teach them to use this type of growth mindset approach not only with their academics, but also with their personal, social, and emotional lives by using programs like YouHue.


Happy growing!


To learn more about Dr. Carol Dweck and Mindsets, you can start here.


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