By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

“You learn from your mistakes.” The wisdom contained in these words is rarely under dispute. However, how one goes about setting up an environment that facilitates learning from mistakes is readily up for discussion.

Students can only learn from their mistakes if they go through the effort of reviewing their work and correcting the errors. To facilitate learning from mistakes, mechanisms that motivate students to engage in such undertakings need to be in place. Certainly, some students will take the initiative to figure out what they have done wrong as soon as their work is returned to them. However, many students I have taught would simply ignore their mistakes and move on. I know because they would make the same mistakes on tests and final exams for the very same questions!

It is a fact of life that not all students take a course for the love of the subject. Even if they liked the course material, they often have competing priorities in life. Furthermore, students don’t necessarily do what is best for themselves. Human nature and habits are hard to fight. So if we truly want our students to learn from their mistakes, incentives are necessary.

In the context of a course, a viable incentive would be a chance for students to improve their marks through repeated attempts or revisions. For example, I have set up my online quizzes with multiple attempts and I count only the highest score for each quiz. After five terms, I have seen this incentive to be very effective: students do try to exhaust all attempts until they reach 100 per cent or run out of time. What is perhaps surprising (in a pleasant way) is that some students would make further attempts even after having obtained 100 per cent!

Some might argue that such incentives would lead to grade inflation. That is hard to deny as far as the term mark goes. But with a final exam worth 50 per cent or more of the final grade, having higher term marks is not a major cause for concern. The improvements in term marks don’t come for free because students have to put in extra work. And if students do manage to improve their marks, they are demonstrating that they are having a better command at the material. Who doesn’t want to see students work harder and know more?