Angela Freese is an author and speaker with expertise in assessment, leadership, system improvement, and strategic planning. Most recently, Angela served as a director of research, assessment, and accountability, as well as a director of learning analytics and systems improvements for school districts in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

#Winning: Anticipating Errors as Preventative Instruction

I was recently working with a team to develop common formative assessments, and they were having some difficulty generating appropriate questions and tasks for the standards being addressed in this particular unit of study. 

We talked through the standards, as well as the learning targets, and brainstormed assessments methods to match the various elements of learning required for students to master the concept. Still, we were in a pause. 

So, I decided to change course. 

Instead of further belaboring the learning targets and what student proficiency would need to look like, I engaged the team to consider what was preventing student learning in the first place. I asked, “What are the mistakes or errors that students commonly make when you have taught this standard in the past?” 

Well, this question certainly got the ideas flowing! They could hardly hold back. Suddenly, the wall was filled with examples of missteps and tendencies that students demonstrated while learning this particular concept. 

Cassandra Erkens (2016) reminds us of the difference between mistakes and errors when it comes to reviewing evidence of student learning. A mistake in student learning, she offers, occurs from simple missteps such as misreading the directions or missing key words. In contrast, errors occur when there is a misconception—misunderstanding in the skill or concept—as evidenced from a disconnect between the task and the student demonstration of knowledge. 

We then discussed what type of corrective instruction would be required to reconcile the mistake and move students closer to proficiency. This discussion led us to the most important part of our planning; how would we ensure that:

  1. Students no longer made those mistakes, and,
  2. Our collaborative planning intentionally created space to monitor student performance and—as necessary—interrupt the mistakes and errors being made?

I wondered if I was on to something with that line of questioning during collaborative unit planning and lesson study with teams. So I tried it again, with a team in a different state at a different grade level and subject. Take a look at how this played out for a fourth-grade team as they were discussing two essential standards in their upcoming unit. The team not only identified the errors and gave examples of those errors, but also began generating ideas for how to correct those errors during instruction and using common formative assessment as a method of monitoring student accuracy. 

Common Mistakes from StudentsExamplesIdeas for Corrective Instruction
Turn character traits into emotions.

Themes are too closely related to the text rather than a central message. 
“The character was blushing, so she was embarrassed.” (versus “The character is shy. I know this because ________.”

“Little Red Riding Hood shouldn’t talk to wolves.” (versus “You shouldn’t talk to strangers.”)
Identify details in the story.

Match themes with events in the story; how do you prove it?
Common Errors from StudentsExamplesIdeas for Corrective Instruction
Difficulty determining how the problem is solved,

Determine wrong problem; not using relevant details or events to state the problem. 
“She got her job back.” (Versus “She captured a big news story, which pleased her boss, and thus she earned back her job.”)

Students struggle to make connections to relevance; have a limited frame of reference/life lessons.
Most students have the ideas and details in their head but have trouble communicating them on paper. Idea for a graphic organizer that promotes more specificity and detail as students look for evidence in the text. 

So why does identifying potential mistakes and errors in student learning matter? If the goal is to ensure all students achieve mastery on the skills and concepts determined to be most essential, then it stands to reason that teams would want to set themselves up for the best chance of achieving the desired level of student success. 

Discussing potential mistakes or errors in advance of instruction greatly improves the likelihood of student success. The adults will have proactively taken preventative steps with their assessment design—which, in turn, initiates preventative steps in instruction—and the students will then receive more cohesive and coherent strategies for moving toward mastery.

As you prepare for the next unit of instruction, pause and ask yourselves: “What have been the tendencies of students when we teach this unit? What common mistakes are made during the learning process? What misconceptions are most frequent or do we anticipate?” 

Consider the planning tool below to support your collaborative discussions.

Essential Standard(s):

Common Mistakes or ErrorsExamples from Student WorkCorrective Instructional StrategiesAssessment Item or Task to Monitor Student ThinkingWhen Given in the Unit of Study

While there are several critical components to be determined during collaborative unit planning—the start and end date, when common summative and common formative assessments will be administered, when the team will discuss evidence of student learning from the common formative assessments, and when and how the team will respond with corrective instruction or extensions—embedding the often overlooked conversation relative to anticipated errors or misconceptions will yield dividends for a cohesive, efficient, and effective unit of study.  

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