by Melanie Greene

The role of mistakes in learning

We grow up thinking that mistakes are bad, but that is not necessarily so – the role of mistakes in learning varies depending on what we are learning.

When we are learning, most of us do not want to make mistakes. In fact, being back in a learning situation can often remind us of times when we were at school – times which may have been difficult or even soul-destroying. However, when you learn some things, mistakes can actually assist learning. It all depends on what you are learning.

Learning facts, figures, symbols and so on

When it comes to learning things that need to be memorised, we need to avoid making mistakes. Mistakes made during the memorising of facts, numbers and so on can be very difficult to rectify.

Just think of a time when you got someone’s telephone number or your PIN wrong: you probably found yourself doubting your ability to remember it correctly the next time you went to use it. Or if you make a mistake when you are driving for the first time to a new place, you often find that you go and make the same mistake again and again.

The reason for this is that facts, numbers and so on are stored in our brain in a very logical way, like a filing system. Once some information has been mis-filed it is very difficult to find it again!

Learning to do things

When you learn physical skills and techniques, you need to minimise the chances of mistakes happening or picking up bad habits as they, too, are difficult to unlearn.

Any tennis coach or driving instructor will tell you that it is easier to teach a complete novice who has never held a tennis racket or driven a car, rather than someone who has been learning on their own or who used to play squash, where the racket is held in a different way.

Once a behaviour becomes a habit, it is harder to change. Therefore, when someone is learning to do something, you need to ensure that they develop good habits right from the start.

Understanding concepts, processes and so on

However, when we are required to understand a concept or process – or when we are learning something which requires us to make decisions or solve problems – mistakes can, if learned from, increase our understanding.

With many processes and theories, we need to fully understand the ins and outs of the concept, in order to respond appropriately if a problem occurs or we need to make a decision.

If we are given a chance to ask questions following any mistakes, in order to understand what has happened and why, this will add to our understanding. We will learn from our mistakes. Therefore, ask as many questions as possible when you are trying to understand something, as this will deepen your understanding. It does not matter if you ask so-called stupid questions, as all questions will help you to fully understand what you are learning.

Key point

As a learner, it important to separate out what needs to be memorised, understood or physically done so that you can choose the right method of learning.

Are there simple techniques I can use?

The answer is yes. Due to the role of errors in the learning process, you will make the learning process easier if you choose the appropriate kinds of technique for whatever you are learning. Sometimes, learning is difficult or tiresome or even seems impossible simply because we are going about it the wrong way.

You need to use different techniques if you are learning facts and figures, compared with learning a practical or physical skill, or if you need to understand different concepts, ideas and theories. MUD: the different ways of learning age explains these different approaches.