The Beauty of Incorrect Answers

Question: What makes for a better learning experience, A) having your mother instruct you on what can and cannot be microwaved, or B) accidentally reheating aluminum foil and burning down the kitchen? (Hint: the answer is B).

People tend to learn well from mistakes, even when the outcomes aren’t traumatizing experiences. Nevertheless, formal education tends to only passively address student misconceptions, and a new study reveals why this is a bad idea.

We examined whether studying incorrect and correct examples was more effective than studying two correct examples across prior knowledge levels. Fourth- and fifth- grade students (N = 74) learned about decimal magnitude in a brief tutoring session. Students were randomly assigned to two conditions: 1) comparing correct and incorrect examples (incorrect condition) or 2) comparing correct examples only (correct condition). The incorrect condition helped students learn correct procedures and key concepts more than the correct condition, including reducing misconceptions. Students’ prior knowledge of decimals did not interact with condition. Students’ explanations during the intervention revealed that those in the incorrect condition more frequently discussed correct concepts.

Teaching more incorrect examples isn’t a silver bullet for the country’s education problems, but it is a promising innovation that requires no disruption and creates no losers. More importantly, the study illustrates that there are still low hanging fruit buried somewhere within the school system. The all-consuming focus on broad things like teacher pay, standardized testing, and school management tends to obscure this fact, but if everybody could just work together to find and pick the low hanging fruit, then…maybe…well…oh, hey look…the leader of a teacher’s union and a conservative governor just egged each other’s houses again. Sigh.
Durkin, K. & Rittle-Johnson, B. (2011). The effectiveness of using incorrect examples to support learning about decimal magnitude Leanring and Instruction, In Press.

2 Responses to The Beauty of Incorrect Answers

  1. Pingback: The Beauty of Incorrect Answers « peer-reviewed by my neurons |

  2. Pingback: The Beauty of Incorrect Answers « peer-reviewed by my neurons |

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