Student mistakes in the classroom can be beneficial

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Whether you are fresh out of high school or are a seasoned college student, you need to take action now in order to avoid falling victim to the student’s greatest fear.

In his recently published article, “Yes, No, Wait, What?: The Benefits of Student Mistakes in the Classroom,” Dominic DeBrincat, a history professor from Missouri State University, addresses the irrational fear that plagues the majority of students in collegiate classrooms — the fear of speaking up and being wrong in front of others. DeBrincat meticulously examines the conditions that lead students to that fearful state of mind — most of which can be summarized in three major points.

First, every student is required to take general courses, which often include subjects students are not particularly interested in and hence are not especially good at. As a result, students often experience a feeling of being out of place and suppress their desire to engage in classroom discussions out of fear of being “under-qualified.”
For instance, as a biology major, I did not consider my interpretation of the Creation of Adam important enough to share with a class of art history majors. In my mind, they were more qualified to talk about the subject and hence deserved to use the limited class time more than I did.

Second, many students take criticism personally and continuously dwell on it. A mistake, in their eyes, is a reflection of their failure as a student and a catalyst for future mistakes. In layman’s terms, students often convince themselves that they would rather remain silent than take the risk of being proven wrong again. DeBrincat said perceptive errors, those that arise from incorrect interpretations of professors’ statements or gaps in students’ logic, are considered to be the most effective at inducing student silence. As a tutor, I can attest to that, as I have seen many a student give up on answering questions if they thought they misinterpreted the problem from the start.

Third, in his article, DeBrincat said “cultural characterizations of error and morality have linked right with righteousness, and wrong with dangerous and manipulative evil.” Whether through games, cartoons and movies, or schools, books and teachers, students were most likely conditioned to believe that “right” is “good” and belongs, whereas “wrong” is “evil” and does not. If we are to believe DeBrincat’s logic, students may refrain from speaking up not so much out of fear of being wrong but out of subconscious fear of being associated with evil.

These three arguments, though somewhat different, have a common denominator — epicureanism, the belief that the absence of pain is the greatest pleasure. Instead of speaking up and taking the chance of being right, students commonly opt to be silent out of certainty of not being wrong. Tutors refer to this unofficially popular approach as the “paralysis of analysis,” a symptom that tutors commonly identify in perfectionists and overachievers.

Simply being aware of the source of fear is not enough to help you cope with it, unfortunately. There are myriads of resources available online that can help you boost confidence and teach you how to accept criticism, such as TED talks and commencement speeches. Alternatively, you can consider the strategies I uncovered in my time as a tutor.

Never attempt to isolate yourself from errors. Errors are an integral part of human experiences and, quite frankly, are the fastest way to learn something new. Just think of all the important questions that you got wrong in your time as a student and you will realize that you remember the correct answers to most, if not all, of them.
By speaking up in class, not only will you solidify the concept in your memory, but also help your peers. As I always say to my fellow students at the tutoring center, “If it is hard for you — it is hard for everybody.” Next time you’re trying to justify taking the risk of being wrong, just remember that you error may lead to another student’s clarity.

Learn to accept constructive criticism. Think of the last time you criticized someone else. It is likely that you did it to help them by pointing out their weaknesses and giving them an opportunity to improve. Not to humiliate or hurt them.
You criticize your friends because you know they can do better. Your professors aren’t any different. If they make an effort to give you feedback, they do so likely because they see room for improvement. Capitalize on that and welcome criticism from those who mean well. After all, not everyone will mean well, and the less sensitive you become to criticism, the more prepared you will be for the harsher realities of error in the outside world, beyond the safety of academia.

Try to foster a culture of intellectual amnesty in your classrooms. Encourage your classmates to participate in discussions and avoid reacting negatively to their errors. Do not laugh, smirk, or be otherwise condescending in response to their mistakes. Their feelings are no different than yours. Think of scenarios that would make you more likely to speak up and try to arrange for such scenarios. And remember, there is no room for pride in an academic setting, only knowledge and humility.

Now that you are armed with this knowledge, it is your duty, just like it was mine, to share it with your peers.