2-Minute Strategies 2-MIN. READ

Turning Mistakes into Teachable Moments

By: Josh Hall 03/28/2023
Turn student mistakes into teachable moments with these activities.  
Three students working together at a desk.

No one likes getting an answer wrong, especially in front of their peers. But when your student provides an incorrect response, it’s actually an opportunity for growth, increased student engagement, and critical thinking. 

Research shows that students create significant neural connections in their brains when they learn from their mistakes. Their minds grow as they recognize, understand, and correct errors in their own work or thinking. 

As a teacher and literacy coach for 10 years, I saw my students make mistakes every day. But I reminded them that we all make mistakes, including me. I explained that mistakes are not something to be afraid of or embarrassed by. They’re actually an important step to learning. 

In some cases, mistakes even led to new discoveries like penicillin and potato chips. As Albert Einstein once said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” When we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, we discover. We grow. And with growth comes competence and confidence.

When your students make mistakes, encourage them to study their work to figure out where they went wrong. Analysis requires “higher-order thinking,” so when students evaluate why their response is wrong, they deepen their level of understanding. As a teacher, you can make the most of wrong answers by incorporating discussions, writing, and kinesthetic activities into your classroom. Here are a few ideas:

1. Discuss the Mistake

Small group discussions are the perfect opportunity to talk about wrong answers. Begin by asking a question, pausing, then providing a wrong answer. Start the conversation by asking why the answer cannot be correct. Have your students share their thinking. Ask them to agree or respectfully disagree and explain their reasons why. Let them collaborate and justify their responses based on what they’ve already learned. 

Bonus: For added fun, turn the discussion into a “newscast.” Allow your students to take turns as the reporter and interview other students on why the answer is incorrect.

2. Journal about the Mistake

Display a question and an incorrect response for your students. In their journals, have students respond to a prompt such as: “The answer is wrong because. . . If the answer was. . . it would be correct because . . .” This makes a great bell ringer or exit ticket and challenges students to go beyond a simple yes or no answer to deepen their understanding.

3. Turn Multiple-Choice Questions into Writing Prompts

Use the answers to a multiple-choice question as writing prompts. Have your students write down why each response is correct or incorrect and explain or justify their answers.

4. Turn Multiple-Choice Questions into a Kinesthetic Activity

Set up a four-corners activity for multiple-choice questions. Designate each corner of the classroom for one of the answers. Display and read the question. Have students go to the corner they think is the correct response. Before having each group share out, give them a chance to talk together about why they chose that corner. It’s important for students to remember they can always re-evaluate their thinking and change corners at any time.

Bonus: As a variation, allow students to move to any corner at the start of the activity. Then have them explain why their corner is the correct or incorrect answer.

5. Create a Continuum to Discuss Answer Choices

Use a continuum to rank multiple-choice answers as obviously wrong, wrong, nearly correct, or correct. Use sticky notes with answer choice letters, and allow students to post them on the continuum. Then, discuss why students placed their sticky notes where they did. This continuum can be used as a whole class, small group, partner, or individual activity. There are so many ways to integrate it into a lesson.

Getting kids up and moving and actively participating in their learning helps them use different parts of their brain and stimulate development. It also brings a different energy to the classroom and makes learning and teaching more fun.