Praise curtails discussion and serves mainly to reinforce the teacher’s role as the authority who bestows rewards

Friday, December 3rd, 2021

Although error avoidance during learning appears to be the rule in American classrooms, Janet Metcalfe says, laboratory studies suggest that it may be a counterproductive strategy, at least for neurologically typical students:

Experimental investigations indicate that errorful learning followed by corrective feedback is beneficial to learning. Interestingly, the beneficial effects are particularly salient when individuals strongly believe that their error is correct: Errors committed with high confidence are corrected more readily than low-confidence errors. Corrective feedback, including analysis of the reasoning leading up to the mistake, is crucial. Aside from the direct benefit to learners, teachers gain valuable information from errors, and error tolerance encourages students’ active, exploratory, generative engagement. If the goal is optimal performance in high-stakes situations, it may be worthwhile to allow and even encourage students to commit and correct errors while they are in low-stakes learning situations rather than to assiduously avoid errors at all costs.


It might seem intuitive that if one does not want errors on the test that counts, then one should avoid errors at all stages of learning. In this view, committing errors should make those errors more salient and entrench them into both the memory and the operating procedures of the person who makes them. Exercising the errors should make the errors themselves stronger, thus increasing their probability of recurrence. Such a view, which is consistent with a number of the oldest and most well established theories of learning and memory (Bandura 1986, Barnes & Underwood 1959, Skinner 1953), suggests that errors are bad and should be avoided at all costs.


However, Stevenson & Stigler (1994; see also Stigler & Hiebert 2009) and their colleagues conducted a landmark study in which they were able to videotape lessons in grade 8 mathematics classrooms in a variety of countries, including the United States, Taiwan, China, and Japan. Of most interest, given that Japan is by far outstripping the United States in math scores, is the striking difference in the teaching methods used in those two countries. Although there may be many other reasons for the differences in math scores, one highly salient difference is whether or not teachers engage with students’ errors. Videotapes show that, in the United States, set procedures for doing particular kinds of problems are explicitly taught. These correct procedures are rehearsed and emphasized; errors are avoided or ignored. The students are not passive in American classrooms. A teacher may ask for student participation in repeating, for example, a procedure for borrowing when subtracting. When asking a question such as, “Can you subtract 9 from 5?” to prompt students to answer, “No, you have to borrow to make the 5 a 15,” the teacher may fail to even acknowledge the deviant child who says, “Yes. It’s negative 4.” If the response does not fit with the procedure being exercised, it is not reinforced. Errors (as well as deviant correct answers) are neither punished nor discussed but are disregarded. Praise is given, but only for the “correct” answer.

As Stevenson & Stigler (1994) pointed out, praise curtails discussion and serves mainly to reinforce the teacher’s role as the authority who bestows rewards. It does not empower students to think, criticize, reconsider, evaluate, and explore their own thought processes. By way of contrast, in Japan praise is rarely given. There, the norm is extended discussion of errors, including the reasons for them and the ways in which they may seem plausible but nevertheless lead to the incorrect answer, as well as discussion of the route and reasons to the correct answer. Such in-depth discussion of the thought processes underlying both actual and potential errors encourages exploratory approaches by students.

Instead of beginning with teacher-directed classwork and explication, Japanese students first try to solve problems on their own, a process that is likely to be filled with false starts. Only after these (usually failed) attempts by students does teacher-directed discussion — interactively involving students and targeting students’ initial efforts and core mathematical principles — occur. It is expected that students will struggle and make errors, insofar as they rarely have available a fluent procedure that allows them to solve the problems. Nor are students expected to find the process of learning easy. But the time spent struggling on their own to work out a solution is considered a crucial part of the learning process, as is the discussion with the class when it reconvenes to share the methods, to describe the difficulties and pitfalls as well as the insights, and to provide feedback on the principles at stake as well as the solutions.

As Stevenson & Stigler (1994, p. 193) note, “Perhaps because of the strong influence of behavioristic teaching, which says conditions should be arranged so that the learner avoids errors and makes only a reinforceable response, American teachers place little emphasis on the constructive use of errors as a teaching technique. Learning about what is wrong may hasten understanding of why the correct procedures are appropriate, but errors may also be interpreted as failure. And Americans, reluctant to have such interpretations made of their children’s performance, strive to avoid situations where this might happen.”

The Japanese active learning approach well reflects the fundamental ideas of a learning-from-errors approach. Engaging with errors is difficult, but difficulty can be desirable for learning (Bjork 2012). In comparison with approaches that stress error avoidance, making training more challenging by allowing false starts and errors followed by feedback, discussion, and correction may ultimately lead to better and more flexible transfer of skills to later critical situations.

Considerable research now indicates that engagement with errors fosters the secondary benefits of deep discussion of thought processes and exploratory active learning and that the view that the commission of errors hurts learning of the correct response is incorrect. Indeed, many tightly controlled experimental investigations have now shown that in comparison with error-free study, the generation of errors, as long as it is followed by corrective feedback, results in better memory for the correct response.


Early studies by Izawa (1967, 1970) showed that multiple unsuccessful retrieval attempts led to better memory for the correct feedback than did a procedure producing fewer incorrect responses. Kane & Anderson (1978) showed similar results: Attempting the generation of the last word of the sentence, even if what was generated was wrong, led to enhanced correct performance compared to reading the sentence correctly from the outset. Slamecka & Fevreiski (1983) asked people to remember near antonyms, such as trivial-vital or oscillate-settle. Even failed attempts (followed by feedback containing the correct answer) improved later recall of the correct answers over simply reading the correct answer. Kornell et al. (2015) have conducted a recent investigation of the same issue and have reached similar conclusions.


It appears that to be beneficial, the guess needs to be somewhat informed rather than a shot in the dark.

Interestingly, in the related-pair case in which a large beneficial effect of committing errors was found, the participants were metacognitively unaware of the benefit. Even immediately after they had experienced the task and had evidenced a benefit of 20 percent (i.e., roughly the difference between a C-minus and an A, if it had been a course grade), participants thought that the error-free condition had resulted in better recall (Huelser & Metcalfe 2012). This lack of awareness of the benefits of error generation may contribute to the aversion to errors in the American teaching style evinced in Stigler’s work.


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    My best learning on large high precision machines happen when I break it. I think for several reasons. First of all it’s memorable. Second, I go through the ‘what the eff did I just do?’ analysis. At that point the principles of how the machine work are reinforced and how I violated those principles. Third, the proper sequence of operation becomes embedded to mostly avoid the same mistake. Failure can be beneficial.

Leave a Reply