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Cure the Crumpled Test Blues - Helping Students Learn From Mistakes


You may ask, what are the crumpled test blues? Well it’s that moment when a student receives a graded assignment, glances at the grade, and stuffs it in the dark abyss known as their backpack. To the dismay of the teacher, all of their meticulous grading efforts seem to be thrown aside with little regard.

Before you write off this behavior as pure laziness, consider the complexity of this reaction. Let’s face it, it’s hard to pick yourself up, brush it off and learn from mistakes. What’s the first thing most of us do when we trip? We look around to see if anyone witnessed our stumble. Yet as educators, we critique students on a daily basis, expecting them to set aside embarrassment and be grateful for the wisdom. But shouldn’t we? It’s our job to challenge students, and we know that mistakes are imperative to the learning process. Educators spend hours outside of the classroom grading papers and adding thoughtful comments to students’ papers, assignments, and tests, hoping they will learn from their mistakes. When in truth, most students look at the grade and toss it aside.

Inspired by an article I recently read by Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien, called Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes, (a must read, in my humble opinion) I say let’s cure the crumpled test blues and encourage students to look beyond their grades to see the bigger picture.


The above diagram taken from Maats and O’Brien’s article demonstrates how experiences and emotional responses can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat or success. It is fascinating how thoughts lead to feelings that then impact decisions and behaviors. The article discusses how mistakes can shape thinking patterns, often causing the mistake to feel like a bigger problem than it really is. These emotions cause students to not look for a solution when faced with adversity, instead moving on without solving the problem… aka, the classic glance and crumple technique.

As educators, we can help students find successful solutions by addressing their emotional reactions and encouraging them to keep working, even when the going gets tough. An article by Marilyn Price-Mitchel, PH.D., Moment of Youth, nicely illustrates this point by discussing the impact of praise on student learning. She cites findings from Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University, “Intelligence testing for the kids praised for their effort increased by 30% while the kids praised for their intelligence dropped by 20%.”2 It was found that students praised for success were more likely to see mistakes as failures, while the students praised for efforts continued to work hard to overcome their mistakes.

There are many ways to address the negative feelings and reactions around mistakes. One suggestion is to simply remind students about the “10,000 hour rule - Ten thousand is the number of hours it takes to become an expert in almost any field.”1

Another is to create opportunities for meaningful and deliberate practice that encourage students to problem solve on their own. Don’t simply save students from their mistakes, but help them work through challenges and encourage positive attitudes.

Educators have been doing this for decades by simply writing a problem on the board and having students work out the problem at their desk.

Going one step beyond this classic method is placing student response technology into a student’s hand. Do what you have always done and allow your class to work through the problem at their own desk using a tablet, dry-erasable whiteboard, laptop or pencil and paper. Once the student has solved the problem, have him/her input the answer into a response device. The student will instantly find out if they missed the problem.

At this moment, encourage students to keep working on the problem even if they missed it and let them know that they can resubmit the answer (a feature of the Qwizdom software). Praise students for their efforts and courage to work through the problem again.

After the work period is up, display the results to the group. At this moment, address emotional reactions of the group and add guidance where needed. If a large percentage of students continue to enter the wrong answer, reteach the key concepts, and then give the group a new problem to solve on-the-fly.

Not only are you allowing students to problem solve independently, but they are getting feedback on their work, and time to correct it, before it is graded or shared with the group. This helps to reduce feelings of anxiety and increase student confidence as they gain new knowledge.

Lastly, help students fall in love with learning. Share your passion for learning with your students and demonstrate how mistakes are not the white elephant in the room, but an opportunity to grow. Perhaps share some of Einstein’s or Stephen Hawkings’ mistakes. Remind students that everyone trips and falls before they succeed. Mistakes are simply a part of the process that makes the resolve that much sweeter.

I’m sad to say that there is no magic pill that cures the crumpled test blues, it is a behavior learned from years of practice. So let’s pull out the iron, and help students look at their graded papers and tests in a new light. Provide opportunities for students to fix mistakes as they happen, or correct them on graded materials for extra credit, adding encouragement along the way.

1 Maats, Hunter and O’Brien, Katie. “Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes” Edutopia. 14 March 2014. Web. 2 April 2014

2 Price-Mitchell, Marilyn, Ph.D. “Mistakes Improve Children’s Learning” Psychology Today. 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 5 April 2014


Tags: education , student response , student response systems , learning

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