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physics, teaching

The Mistake Game

Whiteboarding sessions have been stagnating in one of my regular physics classes for a while. The class has a lot of loud, goofy personalities, and tends to lose focus when their group isn’t presenting (or, honestly, even when their group is up front). At the same time, that class has been crushing the other section on every assessment for a while now. I can give them almost arbitrarily difficult problems, and they will mercilessly attack until they figure them out. So why was class time becoming less and less efficient?

A typically serious whiteboard from the physics class in question. Click to see it larger.

Finally, one whiteboard went up on Tuesday that zapped everyone back to attention. The most distracted students were suddenly asking thoughtful questions. What was different? The group had gone up with the wrong answer.

Aha! They were bored with hearing the correct answers to questions. Almost everyone already had a good solution to every problem by the time we whiteboarded (not typical in most other classes), so they didn’t see any point in paying much attention then. Honestly, can you blame them?

Still, they aren’t going to keep getting better and better at physics if they keep wasting away their class periods being silly when they could be thinking more carefully and intentionally about solving physics problems. Enter: The Mistake Game.

The Rules

First, each group must introduce a mistake into their whiteboard before presenting.

Second, the mistake must be presented very seriously, along with the rest of the work, as though it was an intentional part of the solution.

Third, the presenting group must not acknowledge the mistake until it is called out by someone else in the class.

“Please give your respectful attention to the group at the board. And remember, we’re playing the game!”

We talked about the game on Thursday, but didn’t get to whiteboarding by the end of class. We were finally able to try the game during Saturday’s lab class (double period). Highlights included a giddy student running up to ask, “Are we allowed to make more than one mistake?” Also, a nice moment where an intended mistake (they included air in the system on the LOL for an energy problem even though they had decided to ignore air resistance) was discussed as being okay, just not necessary. For a 3rd/4th Saturday class (end of the “day” on Saturday), it was significantly more productive and focused than usual. I expect that they’ll get better at thinking up subtle mistakes as we play. They’ll also get pickier about the details in their work. I hope that, on more difficult problems, they will purposely include mistakes that they made while solving the problem themselves, even though they later caught and fixed them on paper. Score one more for the mindset team in the battle to normalize making mistakes. After all, they seem to agree with me that we all learn more when a wrong answer goes up than when we’re simply watching perfection.

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About Kelly O'Shea

I teach high school kids physics at an independent day school in NYC. Less homework, more thinking. Follow @kellyoshea


19 thoughts on “The Mistake Game

  1. I was watching you do this last week and it didn’t even occur to me that I’ve done the same thing in the pool… I asked a swimmer (also one of my most dedicated physics students, so she tolerates my nutty ideas pretty well) to swim freestyle, kicking and pulling at a reasonable rate, but to go as slowly as possible… even stay in the same place, if possible. After she did it and proclaimed it “really hard,” I asked her what she had tried. She started analyzing all the things that she did to keep herself from moving forward, then smiled and said “Hey! This is all the stuff that every coach tells me NOT to do!” Suddenly “stuff she’s told not to do” made kinesthetic sense.

    In the same way, purposely “making” a mistake that you are still slightly prone to making (say, when you are tired or confused by new information) is a great way to open your mind to the faulty thought processes that create the mistake. At first I’m sure the kids will be mostly happy to make mistakes that they wouldn’t ordinarily make (or would have made way back last fall), but if we can keep pushing them to include mistakes that the JUST made, then this is bonanza territory.

    Posted by Mark Hammond | April 3, 2011, 2:26 PM
  2. Kelly, we might be the same person. I think normalizing mistakes and other detours to “the answer” is one of the most important parts of teaching. I think it can also build confidence by lessening the penalty for “failure.” I wrote about some of my other ideas at http://larkolicio.us/blog/?p=627 .

    Thanks for the post!

    Posted by Riley | April 5, 2011, 11:39 AM
  3. I was very encouraged by your article. However, this was my first time reading and was blown away by the idea of using whiteboards in that way!!! This actually may be a solution to a problem I have right now. My Form 1 (12-13) students were all provided with laptops but we do not have sufficient network strength for all of them to use at the same time yet.
    So I have been pondering a way to get them to work out problems together and prepare them for using the laptops in a classroom setting when the network is up to par. To me these smaller whiteboards are perfect because they can brainstorm and present in a creative (yet low-tech) way. It is also works well within the limited 40-minute sessions and is flexible (erase and start over).
    Am also seeing ways to use this with my other Forms.
    By the way I am from Trinidad, West Indies, hence the different names for classes.
    So even though it was not the aim of this article, thank you so much for the idea!!!

    Posted by keisim | April 13, 2011, 9:32 AM
  4. When I first started using Modeling Instruction, “way back when,” I came up with the mistake game as a way to help my students who weren’t confident or who felt “picked on” by other groups for making mistakes. Once everyone was making mistakes, it became good to point them out and have them pointed out.

    I had actually forgotten about the mistake game, and I thank you very much for reminding me of it! I used it last week in my AP class, and the kids had to read each others’ solutions very carefully to find the mistakes. I told them that whenever they do a free-response problem, when they are done they should pretend it is someone else’s work and try to find the mistake, and then fix it!

    Posted by Ms. Poodry | October 5, 2011, 11:35 PM
  5. Haha, I just realized that I have linked to this literally four times. Sorry I’m not sorry that I love it.

    Posted by Bowman Dickson | May 8, 2012, 2:58 AM
    • That’s excellent! :) The “Mistake Game” has become such a routine part of my class now, they always assume we are playing it.

      A moment I loved the other day: A boy started trying to change his board because he thought the class was asking him to. They made him change it back to what he had. He was laughing as he realized that his “mistake” was actually correct. I noted that he didn’t have to tell us that it was supposed to be a mistake, but he happily said, “Of course I did!” Now, I haven’t gotten every student to feel so comfortable with that part of learning, but I think the game has really helped a lot for a large number of them.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | May 8, 2012, 1:44 PM


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