Math Tips From Homework Help: Making Mistakes

Blog Post created by teachontarioteam on Apr 21, 2015

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Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 3 54 11 PM.pngChad Richard is the Program Consultant for K-12 Numeracy with the Durham Catholic District School Board and a tutor with Homework Help, the free online math resource for kids in grades 7 to 10.


I know what you’re thinking …. tips on how to make mistakes? This must be some kind of mistake!


But the fact is, there is growing evidence that mistakes play an integral part in a student’s learning. In fact, research gathered from brain MRIs show that when a person makes a mistake, a new synapse in your brain grows. This does not happen when you get something right. Synapses are things in your brain that make connections between neurons when new learning occurs. New learning occurs when we make mistakes.


Jo Boaler is a Stanford professor who is known for her research on math education. In this video, she explains the value of making mistakes in math learning.



Here are 5 tips to help you turn your child’s mistakes into learning opportunities:


  1. Don’t tell your child he or she is wrong: Instead of saying “you’re wrong”, look for the logic in your child’s answer. For example, if your child has to multiply 8 x 3, and your child says the answer is 11, you can say: “I see what you did here… it looks like you used what you know about addition to get your answer. Remember that when we multiply, we will need eight groups of three.”

  2. Unpack the Mistake:  Take the time to see why the mistake is happening. Where is the logic in the mistake? Chances are other children are making the same mistake, which means they are on the same learning journey your child is on. Ask your child: “How did you do that?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Where did that idea come from?”, “Show me some other things you can do with the question?”, “How do you know if you’re right or wrong?”

  3. Don’t Rush:  Research shows that anxiety affects the part of the brain in charge of working memory. If your child feels rushed he or she can develop anxiety, which in turn blocks the ability to tap into working memory, which your child needs to answer questions. Let your child go at a pace he or she is comfortable with – the journey to the answer is more important than the answer.

  4. Play Games and Puzzles: The beauty of many math games and puzzles are that many mistakes need to be made in order to succeed, and many of those mistakes are risk free. Kids use many strategies and variations to win a game or solve a puzzle - they know a lot of trial and error is involved in succeeding. Many mathematicians have attributed their math abilities to their love of puzzles and games. Games and puzzles also enhance a child’s numeracy and logic skills, and they’re fun!

  5. Take the Answer OFF the Pedestal:  Unfortunately both parents and teachers have created a culture where “success” is defined as high marks on tests, and mistakes have no value if the goal is high marks. This goal makes students afraid to make mistakes, to try something new, to take risks, to be creative and to think differently about problems and questions. If we shift focus and praise the effort, rather than the outcome, your child is more likely to try harder, persist and revel in the accomplishment, instead of the right answer.