Pilot project aims to help students learn to make the most of their mistakes

New classroom materials meant to build trust, enhance students’ use of feedback.


A pilot project to help young students benefit from the mistakes they make and become more successful learners in the classroom and throughout their lives will launch this September in Alberta Charter Schools.

The project, developed by UAlberta educational psychologist Jacqueline Leighton, involves creating opportunities that will serve as learning interventions for teachers to talk with their students in kindergarten to Grade 6 about what it means to make mistakes in math and science and how they can use feedback on their errors to improve their learning.

“One of the fascinating things about this work is we get to explore a variable that has really gone ignored, which is how people think about and feel about the mistakes they make as they’re learning,” said Leighton, a professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Education.


“The big idea is that trust, the attachment students feel to a teacher and how safe they feel in the learning environment in terms of their own particular learning style, is a really important part of the way they construct their vision of learning, including their mistakes.”

Part of the stimulus material, developed for these learning interventions in consultation with teachers and students, is a story, called Fiona’s Feedback Adventure, about a good student who encounters learning challenges and has interactions with teachers that children can relate to.

The story will serve as a basis for a series of learning interventions and corresponding formative assessments that can be easily embedded within the curriculum to measure the impact on learning math and science.

As the learning activities and formative assessments are gradually implemented and evaluated in classrooms, Leighton said she will follow up with teachers and students to see how the materials are facilitating conversations about the benefits of feedback and student learning over time.

“Education is full of anecdotal things that ‘seem to work,’” Leighton said. “What we’re doing is systematically evaluating these interventions with a variety of achievement and response-to-feedback metrics, not just in the one school but in comparator schools to evaluate how they impact feedback and learning. The real question is, are students able to use feedback better after being exposed to these materials?”

She added that it’s important to implement such interventions with diverse learners in Grades K-6, even—and perhaps especially—with students who seem to be doing well in school.

“The literature suggests that high-achieving students are sometimes the most anxious about feedback because they’re the most aware of their performance and typically excel,” Leighton said. “And this is the time when being able to engage with feedback in a healthy way is very important. Otherwise as they get older and the material they’re learning becomes more difficult and they encounter setbacks, to feel threatened or become avoidant about seeking feedback can become problematic for, in some cases, very bright learners.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that children have different ways of learning and that helping them recognize their personal learning style also supports their success, Leighton said.

“If we give children the tools to see their mistakes and temporary failures as opportunities to better understand what they’re trying to do, it’s a powerful key to become a motivated lifelong learner and to approach learning in a very healthy, enthusiastic way, rather than to always feel like, ‘this is another evaluation of how competent or smart I am.’”

Plans are also underway to expand the pilot project within the Edmonton Public School Board and the Edmonton Catholic Schools when possible.