Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

When Students Get It Wrong

When learners make mistakes in class, we may have a hard time deciding how to respond.  If we come from a culture of self-esteem,[1] we may worry about students’ psyche and avoid correction.  If from a culture of self-improvement, we may give too much correction that is too direct.  Yet, learning doesn’t happen without making mistakes.  If not corrected, students can get stuck.  If given in the wrong way, the correction may not “take.”  Below are some suggestions that might help.

The Goal

We want students to leave our classes knowing what’s right just like the Master Teacher wants us to study His Word and actively remember.  But, the point of error correction is not to stick to our guns and ensure students get it right.  The underlying goal is for them to become autonomous learners—noticing their errors and self-correcting.  They need an internal monitor for mistakes just like we need one for sin, and we all need a calibrator, whether teacher or Master Teacher.

No one error treatment leads to this desired outcome, but two that may work are:

  • questions that lead to self-correction by: 1) asking students to clarify, 2) breaking the error into manageable chunks, or 3) drawing other students in to “help.”[2]
  • a prompt: 1) “We talked about that earlier.  What’s the rule?” or 2) a pre-taught device like the Rubber Chicken that indicates an error has been made, possibly in a humorous way.

Choose your battles

In an attempt to help a language student self-correct, I experimented in a conversation one day.  Every time she made a mistake, I pretended not to understand.  Not surprisingly, I exasperated her.

Instead of exasperating our students, we can choose our battles in the classroom and focus on errors that:

  • are common and frequent, ones most students struggle with.
  • are easily corrected because they’re simple or related to something we’ve just taught.
  • have potentially negative (and long-term) effects—our students won’t pass their exam or get the next point in our lesson, or they might be misunderstood or laughed at.
  • occur in accuracy-focused activities and not when real (and possibly heartfelt) communication is taking place.
  • deal with facts and not opinions.

People over Problems

We’ve talked here before about the importance of an encouraging, trust-filled classroom environment as a way to face off fear.  And last week, Jill talked about creating a positive classroom culture in the context of strong relationships.  What does this culture look like?  In part, it’s a place where everyone acknowledges mistakes, especially the teacher, and where we all laugh at ourselves as we attempt to get things right.

Tone and attitude also come into play.  I had a Chinese teacher who responded to mistakes with a decisive ‘错,” “wrong.”  Perhaps he should have chosen a less direct treatment, but his approach worked because his tone was gentle and matter-of-fact.  Of course, our best example is Yahweh.  We have sinned much and deserve nothing more than a lot of correction.  Yet His attitude is gracious, compassionate, patient, and permeated with love.

The Confusion of Culture

Culture can confuse our picture of error correction because of not only differences but also our confused understandings.  Chinese culture is a good example.  Many new teachers learn right off that causing a loss of face is a no-no, and then they assume students’ errors shouldn’t be corrected in class and possibly not at all.  But in a society that also values both relationship and self-improvement (vs. self-esteem), correcting mistakes is a way to show concern for someone.  Imagine the impression we make when we care for our students enough to correct their mistakes with the graciousness and compassion of our Master.

[1]Richard E. Nisbett, in The Geography of Thought (2003, Free Press),suggests that there is a “push to feel good about the self” in the West as compared to a “drive for self-improvement” in the East.  In a study he reports on, a feeling of success motivated Canadian students to work harder.  Japanese students were motivated by an opportunity to do better.

[2]For specific examples, see Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (2010, Jossey-Bass).

Further exploration

  • James 1:19-25; Psalm 103
  • Rubber Chicken
  • Break It Down from Teach Like a Champion(Doug Lemov, 2010), Chapter 3.  (Also see No Opt Out and Right is Right in Chapter 1.)
  • For second/foreign language teachers:  Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (H. Douglas Brown, 2007), Chapter 9; OR Learning Teaching (Jim Scrivener, 2011), Chapter 12.

What’s your perspective?

  • How do you feel about correcting students’ mistakes?
  • What approach do you take?

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

Photo Credit: geishaboy500 via Compfight cc

6 comments on “When Students Get It Wrong

  1. Anonymous
    September 3, 2014

    In addition, increasing input orally or written (language learning) will increase awareness of errors and self-correction.


  2. Anonymous
    September 3, 2014

    Post error exercises with correct and incorrect choice is very helpful and anonymous (the one producing the error realizes his/her particular error, but no one else needs to).


  3. Melissa K. Smith
    September 4, 2014

    Yes, I've done this too. It is a great way to get students self-correcting and without having to identify their errors in class. I find it especially helpful when we're working on a particular structure and get to the communicative practice point. Instead of interrupting their communication, I can listen in on pair/group work, record errors, and then post them (anonymously, yes). Everyone has the benefit of learning from the corrections as they correct in groups or we all work on them together.


  4. Melissa K. Smith
    September 4, 2014

    I'm curious to know how you make use of this idea in class. In addition to extra input, do you do anything to raise students' awareness of their errors, or does that awareness come naturally as they take in the input? Does this work the same for all students, or are some more likely to benefit than others? Sorry for all the questions, but I would like to understand how this works. 🙂


  5. Julie O
    September 12, 2014

    I generally collect a lot of student errors and show them in front of the class (with no student name). Students, I find, are VERY interested to see their own errors and do not even need to let others know which example is theirs. It creates an environment where students feel safe to try things out and make mistakes and learn from them. The atmosphere is light and their attitude curious. Sometimes we even laugh at the silly sentences they have created. It can be almost like “Mad libs.”


  6. Melissa K. Smith
    September 12, 2014

    I smile as I picture your students playing this version of “Mad libs.” I've made some pretty ridiculous mistakes in Chinese (still do), so I can hear the laughter in your classes as students realize and correct. What a great way to approach errors!


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This entry was posted on September 3, 2014 by in error correction, Melissa K. Smith, students who make mistakes, types of students.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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