“Although error avoidance during learning appears to be the rule in American classrooms, laboratory studies suggest that it may be a counterproductive strategy.”
Reviewing more than 60 years of academic literature, Janet Metcalfe (a psychology professor at Columbia University) found that, “An unwarranted reluctance to engage with errors may have held back American education.” She goes on to explain that, “The behavioral and neurological data reviewed here indicate that, as long as one is not amnesic, making errors can greatly facilitate new learning. Errors enhance later memory for and generation of the correct responses, facilitate active learning, stimulate the learner to direct attention appropriately, and inform the teacher of where to focus teaching.”
Metcalf concluded: “The research reviewed here suggests that teachers and learners alike should be encouraged to be open to mistakes and to actively use them in becoming prepared for the test that counts”
The Power of “Errorful” Learning
Psychologists have long noted differences between “errorful” and “errorless” learning. In “errorful learning,” the training situations are engineered from the start so that the learner will make (and then corrects) mistakes. In an “errorless learning environment,” the situations are crafted so that, in the early stages, it is difficult or impossible for the learner to make any mistakes.
As early as the 1960s behavioral psychologists noted that “errorless” learning environments were much less stressful: Pigeons trained in an “errorless” way simply seemed to ignore erroneous choices. This seems attractive—no one wants learning to be stressful. But it’s important to note that while the “errorless” pigeons experience less stress, the “errorful” pigeons actually performed better: They were faster to make the correct choice as the training progressed, and actively avoided (rather than simply ignoring) wrong choices.
In her work, Metcalf has found that errorful learning may have further additional benefit in humans: It appears to be more durable over time. In contrast to animals, humans don’t just make mistakes; we often make mistakes that, at the time, we are totally convinced are the right answers. “Interestingly,” Metcalf notes, “the beneficial effects [of errorful learning] are particularly salient when individuals strongly believe that their error is correct: Errors committed with high confidence are corrected more readily than low-confidence errors.”
The Hypercorrection Effect in Simulation Training
Metcalf calls this sort of “enhanced learning through high-confidence mistakes” the “hypercorrection effect,” noting that:
“Corrective feedback, including analysis of the reasoning leading up to the mistake, is crucial. Aside from the direct benefit to learners, teachers gain valuable information from errors, and If the goal is optimal performance in high-stakes situations, it may be worthwhile to allow and even encourage students to commit and correct errors while they are in low-stakes learning situations rather than to assiduously avoid errors at all costs.”
Simulation training offers a unique opportunity to reap all of the benefits of hypercorrection. It goes beyond just giving students “permission to fail” in an environment where they are safe and comfortable. You can actually engineer scenarios where they make a terrible mistake, fully confident that it’s the right move, and then dig into that moment in after-action debriefing and through repeated practice.