Turning ‘Errors’ into ‘Experiments’

“To err is human” as quoted by Alexander Pope in his poem An Essay on Criticism. And humans err a lot!

Whether it’s forgetting to grab our phones to work, missing a turn on our way to the grocery store, or sending a text to the wrong person by accident. Yet we treat errors like they need to be avoided, primarily because they reveal our flaws and can cause unforeseen consequences in our lives.

When it comes to tutoring, errors are simply incorrect answers. No one gets an answer wrong and ends up getting jail time. Crimes of that calibre are hardly equatable. Yet, to a struggling student, they can feel just as punishing.

That’s why it’s imperative for us as tutors to cultivate resilience in our students when they get an answer wrong. How do we usually go about this? We just tell the student it’s okay to make mistakes.

On the surface, that seems like a good way to maintain a student’s confidence. However, in many cases, reassurance like this doesn’t eliminate problems. In fact, depending on the student’s emotional state, it could create even greater ones during the learning process.

Mental health issues play a huge role in a student’s response to reassurance. In regards to those with OCD or anxiety, Newharbinger.com says, “Being stuck in reassurance-seeking can lead to paralysis in decision-making, haunting worries about making a mistake … insecurity, and self-doubt”. In other words, you end up having the outcome you’d hoped to prevent.

Fortunately, not every student suffers from OCD or anxiety. Some students may just need to hear “it’s okay” in order to calm their worries. But those two little words prove to be less effective in helping a student overcome their fear of error than we might believe.

That’s why we need to go to the source of the problem – the word ‘error’ itself.

Errors sound scary. They rhyme with ‘terror’ after all. Such a negatively-charged label can create guilt and shame in a student before they’ve even set pen to paper. Just the thought of making an error in front of an educated adult can sound like a nightmare. But what if we reframed ‘errors’ as ‘experiments’ instead?

When you’re with a student, it’s necessary to stress that errors are a natural part of life. Calling errors ‘experiments’ lets students know they can take chances in your tutoring sessions that they wouldn’t be able to in a typical school setting where their future is determined by their performance.

As far as experiments go, consider every aspect of your session a work-in-progress, including yourself. Tinkering with the formula can help you evolve your tutoring style over time. For instance, you can rearrange your sessions based on your student’s input and thus grow more capable of handling various educational obstacles.

But this analogy isn’t just for your benefit.

Once you tell students to experiment in your sessions, they’ll begin to see how their efforts can help them develop resilience in themselves. It can be embarrassing for a student to speak up in class in front of all their peers, but your sessions offer a safe space for them to properly communicate their challenges. In addition, they allow students to try different approaches to a problem, take their time and ask questions so that even when they get a question wrong, they don’t face the consequence of a poor grade.

Initially, a student will likely struggle with the idea of ‘experimenting’ with mistakes. But, with your help, they can develop a growth mindset that allows them to diminish the severity of their errors and bolster the value of their efforts.

Once they do that, they’ll be able to take on the world with more confidence and higher self-esteem.

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