Reflecting on mistakes

For a long time, I thought that the  self-assessment activity that I had my students  do after each topic test, where they mark their own work, was as effective as it could be. What could be more useful? Turns out, quite a lot. They could tell me where they had lost marks, but not why, and certainly not how to avoid the same error in the future, relying instead on me to give them that level of analysis.


I was missing a vital step – my students were not deliberately, slowly and attentively identifying and correcting their errors. They weren’t learning from their mistakes, at least not as well as they might have been.

The mistakes we want our students to make

Mindset Works, in this blog post, refers to mistakes we want to see our students making as stretch mistakes, “Stretch mistakes happen when we’re working to expand our current abilities. We’re not trying to make these mistakes in that we’re not trying to do something incorrectly, but instead, we’re trying to do something that is beyond what we already can do without help, so we’re bound to make some errors” (Mindset Works, 2016).  Making stretch mistakes gives our students the opportunity to attend to and correct the error, and therefore make progress. Stretch mistakes aren’t the only mistakes that are productive, but they are the ones we can most easily plan for in our lessons through the tasks we give our students.

Mindset Works - Categories of Mistake


Categorising Mistakes

In the terrific A level Mindset, Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin offer the following categories as a starting point for students to categorise their mistakes, and they go on to talk about the value of students doing this in order to learn from their mistakes:

Active – wrong process
Slip-ups – correct process but there’s a problem with execution
Blackouts – the student doesn’t know the content well enough

Another set of categories I like are those outlined by Olle Linge @HackingChinese in this great blog post. He outlines four types of mistake:

Careless – we lose concentration
Uninformed – we didn’t know any better
Isolated – one-off mistakes
Systemic – flawed thinking/understanding

My students’ mistakes tend to fall into three categories, and these are the categories they use when they are marking their own work: (print resolution version of the instruction sheet below, available here).

Oops –  a careless mistake (only they didn’t like the word careless one jot, so it became oops)
Knowledge – they didn’t know the answer
System – a mistake in technique eg describing instead of evaluating

Eliminating errors - categories

Eliminating errors – categories

I don’t want my students making mistakes that they don’t go on to identify and correct, and I don’t want them to repeat the same mistakes over time. As Maya Angelou so beautifully put it, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Unless they are attempting to reflectively correct their own mistakes, it’ll take them a lot longer to know better.

Deliberate attention to mistakes is also associated with myelin formation, and myelin is associated with mastery. Myelin forms when a neural pathway is fired. The more the pathway fires, the more myelin forms. In his fascinating book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle poses the following question:


Q: Why is targeted, mistake-focused practice so effective?

A: Because the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological necessity.

Tasks that encourage reflective correction of mistakes

Reflect on own work before teacher feedback: Identify – Correct – Set targets

  1. Have students mark their work from a mark scheme, answers or exemplar
  2. Ask students to highlight their mistakes by first identifying and then categorising them (categorising forces them to think about the mistake)
  3. Correct the mistakes – annotate their work with the corrections
  4. Set targets for making sure that mistake doesn’t happen again eg revise content, answer questions with similar command verbs
  5. Repeat

I will then mark the work, identifying any mistakes that were missed, and providing additional feedback including that on spelling and grammar.
Reflection cycle

Reflect on knowledge gaps

I am still using the topic reflection activity as a spaced retrieval activity, and this in itself encourages reflection on knowledge errors.

Reflect on wider systems

Ask students to reflect each week on the effectiveness of the wider systems they use, focusing on folder organisation, homework completion, independent study tasks carried out and how well they have revised any knowledge gaps identified in the week. At the start of the year I set aside 10 minutes a week to do this, since many of my 16 year olds just don’t know what to do with a ringbinder, some plastic wallets and a set of dividers. As Jessica Lahey points out in her book, The Gift of Failure, “this isn’t an ability that magically appears when he needs to take on the management of his own life. It’s a skill that takes practice, trial and error, and patience“(Lahey, 2015).


Mistakes Are Not All Created Equal – Growth Mindset Blog & Newsletter. 2017. Mistakes Are Not All Created Equal – Growth Mindset Blog & Newsletter. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 31 March 2017].

Steve Oakes, 2016. The A Level Mindset: 40 activities for transforming student commitment, motivation and productivity. Edition. Crown House Publishing.

Hacking Chinese. 2017. Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis | Hacking Chinese . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 31 March 2017].

Daniel Coyle, 2010. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown.. 2nd Edition Edition. Arrow Books Ltd..

Jessica Lahey, 2015. The Gift of Failure: How to Step Back and Let Your Child Succeed. Edition. Short Books Ltd.