Today I want to focus on just one aspect of the importance of written product: correcting mistakes.
Let’s imagine a student who gets a test handed back to him. It had 30 questions, of which he missed six. Many students will simply look at the score at the top of the page and say, “Okay, 80%, not bad.” and be done with it.
Whether or not we’re satisfied with the score we earn on an exam is actually irrelevant. We should always figure out what went wrong with any question that we missed. Mistakes are the best way to learn. If you got 99 out of 100 correct, there’s still something to learn. Also consider that if you guessed on any questions and got them right, those still reflect gaps in your knowledge.
If a student understands this and wants to learn from his errors, then he’ll probably just look at the questions he missed and try to figure out what went wrong. He’ll use his eyes, his brain, and if he can’t figure it out himself, his mouth and his ears. Unfortunately, these are insufficient. He also needs to use two hands to pull out pencil and paper, physically make notes, and correct his errors. He needs to write his wrongs.
The act of writing achieves two things simultaneously, both very important for learning. It builds notes for future reference, and it convinces your brain to care.
Anything that is returned to you with a grade that you get to hold onto can be used as a reference in the future. If you make corrections and take notes on all your tests and quizzes and make sure to save them in an organized way, they become a powerful tool you can use to study for finals. All of the content you found to be the most difficult during the year will be laid out for you.
Unfortunately, many teachers show you the graded tests but then collect them. Here, making note of the questions you missed is critical and must be done quickly. Your teacher may not allow you to write down the actual questions you missed because he wants to reuse the questions on next year’s test–that’s why he’s not letting you keep your test–but you should at least be allowed to write down the types of questions that you missed. Make note of the content that was challenging. At least then you’ll know what you don’t know.
You may need to schedule time with the teacher before or after class to go over the test in detail and make note of what your knowledge gaps are. Going out of your way to advocate for yourself and take charge of your own learning is precisely the sort of thing active-agent students do. The way your tests are handed back in class may not be conducive to correcting your errors, but you always have the power to take charge and find a way to make it happen.
On the other hand, there are teachers who not only let you keep your tests, but also allow you to make corrections to earn back partial credit. If you’re lucky enough to have such a teacher, please take advantage of this opportunity. The points you earn for making those corrections are actually a minor benefit compared to the learning that you achieve in the process and the favor you’re doing for your future self.
Don’t ignore your mistakes. Correct them. And don’t just mentally correct your mistakes. Write your wrongs.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
Title Image: Laddir Laddir. “Pencil.” http://flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.