Professor: How my student's 'stupid' mistake became a teachable moment—for both of us

Student gaffes 'are not occasions to roll one's eyes'

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 26, 2017.

Writing in the Washington Post, University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham explains how responding to students' mistakes can turn frustrating moments into learning opportunities.

The cognitive scientist says he recently received an email from a student who added his class late. The student wrote, "I was wondering if there was anything overtly important I missed in the past weeks that I needed to catch up on or material I should take note of?"

Willingham withheld his sarcasm and responded politely—before posting a screenshot to Facebook and chuckling with his friends about the student's use of "overtly important." But a few days later he realized that the student may not have realized that his initial email seemed inappropriate.

"I had been congratulating myself for being polite in response to a stupid email from a student. But I hadn't taught the student that the email was inappropriate, let alone how to write a better one," Willingham says.

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Willingham then wrote back to the student, who responded by clarifying his intention—the student knew he must catch up on all missed content but was wondering if he should spend extra time on any of the materials. The miscommunication resulted from the student using "overtly" to mean "especially."

Willingham said the experience taught him a deeper lesson: That teachers should not laugh off a student's gaffe, but seek out the reason why the student erred in the first place.

"I'm ashamed to admit that I've made a mistake for 25 years, that in retrospect, seems so painfully apparent," Willingham writes. "Student mistakes—of any sort—are not occasions to roll one's eyes. They are occasions to find out what the student doesn't know and teach it, if you can." (Willingham, "Answer Sheet," Washington Post, 9/16).

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