• flickr
  • linkedin
  • twitter
  • rss
Learning from mistakes

Learning from mistakes

We all learn from our mistakes, it’s one of the strongest methods of learning we have. Stick your hand in boiling water and that outcome – the searing pain from your boiled hand – really gets the lesson across: don’t do that again. But we barely ever do this in eLearning. It’s a massive waste of opportunity.

To write mistake based learning isn’t that hard. It uses no different technology or development strategies, you can stick with multichoice if you want – you just need to explore and explain outcomes.

The key to it is to branch a little bit – write customised feedback for each option. That’s it. If you can give learners legitimate-enough distractor options, and in the feedback, take them through the repercussions of that wrong choice, they’re learning from the mistake.

Here’s an example of mistake-based feedback for a multichoice question:

“You decided to immediately open the valves to prevent explosion. Unfortunately there were maintenance contractors working in the area. When the emergency valves opened, they were horribly burned to death.”

In this instance, the learner sees the outcome. The horrifying consequences of their action. It’s quite clear they’ve made a mistake. If you’re not considering outcomes, a typical feedback option could just as easily be:

“You decided to immediately open the valves to prevent explosion. This is incorrect. You must always check the site maintenance roster before changing valve configurations on site.”

Pretty arse in comparison. The learner never learns why they shouldn’t open the valves, they just learn the company policy. By rote. So what happens if situations are different later down the track – the roster dates get accidentally wiped off or something? They won’t have an appreciation for the outcome of the mistake – they might think it’s no big thing to just check the roster afterwards. Watch out contractors.

It’s as simple as that. Custom feedback for each option, walking through the consequences or outcome of their selected choice.

If a learner selects an incorrect branch, my preference is to redirect the learner to try again. They’re not going to pick the same thing again, and they can learn from the other incorrect options too if they’re things they’d think to do first as well.

It’s not just for those who don’t know the answers though. People who know what to do might just like to see what would happen if they did vent the gas instead. So it can reinforce their correct response too. For them, it’s like a pick-a-path book – don’t tell me you didn’t keep three fingers in there to see what happened down the other paths!

All it takes to make the training so much more effective (and enjoyable) is to spend a little more time on individual outcome-based wrong-answer feedback.

As a real-life example on less exciting topics than gas-venting, I was lucky enough to read feedback from learners of a module I developed recently. One of the favourite parts of the training was a conversation piece where you could select from a variety of responses to a customer and see the outcome. The customer was making an enquiry and mentally fragile. The options to respond to their enquiry all said ‘sorry we can’t do that’ in essence, but they varied in terms of warmth. If you decided to be a complete bastard, you were still correct – but you got to see the reaction from the customer, got to see the pain in their little face and speech bubble. Aw. But as the learner picked less-arseholey options, they saw the different effect and response it had on the customer. By seeing the outcome, and having the opportunity to select something else, they could learn from their mistake.

One more thing – don’t say ‘try again’ in an incorrect branch. It implicitly says ‘you’re wrong’ which is not how you want mistake-based learning to work. The end of your incorrect branches should recognise that that wasn’t an ideal outcome and maybe there’s a better one. It’s about what happened, not what’s right or wrong. Better to say ‘see what happens with another option’ or ‘explore another way of addressing this’.

Key points to mistake-based learning:

  • write feedback for each option illustrating the outcome of the choice.
  • give the learner the option to keep trying until they get it right.
  • Don’t slap ‘incorrect’ on everything. Just tell them they’re correct after they’ve read the correct response’s outcome.

Go on – work some mistake-based learning into your next module. It’s way more fun, and way more effective.


Larry's a 30-something chap interested in tramping, being a dork and changing the world via less boring training.

Leave a reply