Failure as Feedback

Hello FLMS staff and families!

Below is an abbreviated article about the productive student feedback. I hope you enjoy it.

Dave Patota


Freetown-Lakeville Middle School


Failure As Feedback

In this article in Edutopia, tutors/consultants/authors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien describe the familiar scenario of students getting a test back from their teacher, glancing at the not-so-good grade, wadding the paper up, and stuffing it in their backpacks, never to be seen again. These students are responding emotionally to their perceived failures – mistakes make them feel stupid, incompetent, ashamed. “If we say something embarrassing, we hide our face,” say Maats and O’Brien. “If we get a bad grade, we hide the test away… By the time students walk into your classroom, they’ve likely already internalized their mistakes as evidence that they’re just not smart. Getting a bad grade feels like a personal attack.”

This is a highly unproductive approach, say the authors. One of the keys to success is learning from mistakes and engaging in “deliberate practice” to overcome them. Musicians don’t play a new piece from start to finish fudging the tricky parts. They stop when they make a mistake, figure it out, and practice until it can be played smoothly – and academic learning works the same way. “Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom,” say Maats and O’Brien, “because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice… Changing your students’ perspective on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give yourself as a teacher.” Here are their specific suggestions:

Explicitly teach students that their mistakes are helpful guides to doing better. “The red pen isn’t the enemy – when students understand how to deal with errors, red means go.”

Get students to look over their work and focus on the specific concept or skill they got wrong – for example, they missed the question on mitosis;

Take the most common mistakes made on a test or quiz and review them as a class. “The more open everyone is about the mistakes they’ve made and how they happened, the less significance any student will place on future errors,” say Maats and O’Brien.

Have students determine what caused each error; “Mistakes happen for concrete reasons,” say the authors. “A student didn’t memorize all the requisite facts, didn’t execute the steps of a process, or perhaps just ignored the directions.”

Convey a matter-of-fact attitude toward mistakes: “The red ‘X’ is just a simple assessment of the actions the student took – actions he or she can easily fix next time.”

“Sharing that clarity and causality with your students,” conclude Maats and O’Brien, “is the best way to teach deliberate practice, instill motivation and help them develop a more constructive relationship with mistakes.”


“Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes” by Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien in Edutopia, March 20, 2014,; for a similar piece on effective practice, see Memo 518 for the summary of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Marshall Memo 532 April 14, 2014