Trial-and-error learning

Everything in life is an experiment. Understanding and learning often results from a process of trial and error. You probably experience this every day in class! This is how your students learn how to persevere and remain positive while keeping their self-confidence and enthusiasm intact.  


Appreciating effort, perseverance and victories 

They are many different types of things to be learned, and as many ways of learning them! As you probably already know, some students find certain subjects easy and others very difficult.  By experimenting, asking questions, hypothesizing and persevering, they develop the scientific method as well as their resilience when it comes to mistakes and failures. In fact, the word failure should be permanently removed from the dictionary, since there will always be opportunities to learn. 

To transform students’ mindsets about mistakes, explain to them that great scientists often take years to make break-through discoveries; that writers sometimes do several drafts before writing their great novel; that musicians, chefs, mechanics and archeologists all had to learn their craft by making 1001 mistakes! There are so many ways to go wrong before achieving a successful outcome! But it isn’t enough to just understand that making mistakes is normal: you have to persevere and always look for solutions. 

In class, it’s sometimes necessary to evaluate certain projects or activities according to the student’s efforts. Evaluating the process means considering all the effort invested to integrate knowledge, conduct research and experiments, to collaborate with the other students and to be innovative. The projects can be entrepreneurial in nature or in the form of discussions/finding solutions. Trial-and-error learning allows students to work towards a goal and learn without being stressed by an upcoming evaluation.   

This type of teaching approach can be very beneficial for students who are highly perfectionist or anxious about not being good enough or “failing.”  

Learning by trial and error 

Making mistakes is a necessary step in the learning process, which is in no way linear! “You learn from your mistakes,” as the saying goes. Mistakes teach us to think about alternatives, to understand why we should do this instead of that. So the right to make mistakes is something students need to incorporate when they begin a new class project.   

As well, being in a safe, stimulating space allows students to experience making mistakes and finding solutions in a healthy, thoughtful way. By learning how to react to mistakes in a nurturing environment, students will already know how to deal with them and won’t see a situation as insurmountable. Problem solving is definitely a learned reflex!  

The current educational system evaluates knowledge in large part with exams. However, students in the same class  are not all at the same level and don’t all have the same speed or ease of concept integration. What’s more, their “intelligence” can be of different types: rational, emotional, intuitive… (the definition of intelligence includes “the ability to adapt”). In addition, certain students are more visual, auditory or like to experiment with abstract concepts in a hands-on way.  

When mistakes are no longer stigmatized, they become a lever for learning! By creating a climate of trust, students can evolve at their own rhythm, according to their own way of investigating and learning. This allows you, as a teacher or special education technician, to identify strengths and weaknesses of each student, then adapt your teaching method accordingly. 

If an error is seen as an avoidable mistake or failure that has to be corrected immediately with the “right answer,” students will feel that there is no place for creativity, that everything is already decided and that they have no choice. If a student has misheard, misunderstood or didn’t follow the directions properly, giving them the right answer doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to understand their mistake.  

For example, if a student misspelled the word “flower,” giving them the chance to rewrite the word according to what they think is a better answer gives them a chance to think again. They student may write “flour” without it being the right answer. Through trial and error, students will remember the word and understand why they made the mistake! Overcoming obstacles always offers rewards and opportunities to understand more and better! 

Trial-and-error learning projects and activities   

Any educational project in which learners have some freedom to conduct research, experiment, hypothesize and try again can be used to raise awareness of the importance of making mistakes. Projects can be either individual or group based. The importance is that students take the time to make note of their mistakes and revisit them once the project is finished. They can then ask themselves the following questions:  

  • Why is this a mistake?  
  • What are the reasons why I made this mistake?  
  • What did this mistake teach me?  
  • What solutions can I use to avoid making the same mistake?  

Interactive team projects (project-based learning) are interesting because they are evaluated mainly on the effort invested, on the quality of the process and the personal and interpersonal qualities developed. Before moving on to complicated projects, you can start by suggesting activities that will allow your students to come to terms with their mistakes and not make a big deal out of them. Here are a few suggestions:   

  • Round table 

In teams of 3 or 4, students make a list of mistakes that they have made in the past year, or even in their lives and then share them. They can be big or small! But they have to be mistakes that the students found funny afterwards! It is important to create a sense of trust and respect during when sharing: you don’t laugh at people’s mistakes.  

Students then write down on paper the emotions they felt at the moment (fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, despondency, indifference, etc.), without identifying themselves. Then the papers are mixed up and shared between the students: this way, the answers remain confidential to protect each person’s vulnerabilities.  

Then students can write on the paper what they learned from the mistakes and the strategies that they decided to use to “fix” or not repeat the mistake. This information remains confidential, as everyone has their own way of dealing with mistakes!   

With this exercise, students will understand that it is common and natural for human beings to make mistakes, not remember something or stumble. Each mistake, whether in class or in their personal lives, makes us learn and look for solutions. This activity can all be done as a cartoon. 

  • Mistakes on purpose 

Offer tests, assignments or activities that are just beyond your students’ skill level to allow them to make mistakes. Warn them though!  You can give them a text with complicated words, which your learners can read in teams and then try to guess the meanings of the unknown vocabulary! The texts can be either in French or English.  

You can also give your students a “Find the Mistake” activity, whether in math, science, spelling or biology.



When your students make mistakes, you can deal with them in a positive, supportive way, by clearly indicating the methods to use to understand and solve the problem. Don’t say too much and let the students do their own thinking and research! 

The Vireo project: ideal for trial-and-error learning 

The school garden allows students to experiment with things that they don’t necessarily have to get right the first time. Sometimes, certain plants grow better than others, or certain seeds don’t grow at all. These forms of failure can provide an opportunity to experience resilience and to understand that mistakes aren’t always dramatic. Students will be able to consult each other, ask themselves questions, conduct research, start over and understand why it didn’t work the first time. 

The Vireo garden is a year-round educational project that provides new knowledge, while promoting the development of psychosocial skills such collaboration, mutual aid, listening skills and patience. 

Contact us to learn how to implant the Vireo garden in your school, and obtain more information about the subsidies available to help you.