Is it okay for language learners to make mistakes?

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

“It’s okay to make mistakes.”

That’s what many English language teachers tell their students at the start of a course. It’s a reassurance designed to address the anxiety of students who are reticent about speaking or writing because they are used to teachers emphasizing accuracy in language use: accuracy in grammar and vocabulary in particular. And it’s a recognition that taking risks is a means to improvement.  

In spite of the merits of the ‘it’s okay to make mistakes’ advice though, grading practices of many teachers, programs, or institutions contradict it. In fact, grading systems often implicitly communicate to students that it is emphatically not okay to make mistakes. 

Here’s how the contradiction happens. Most schools still give grades, and most students want to get a good grade. Final grades are most often arrived at by combining the results of work done during the term or session – assignments, quizzes, and the like, known as formative assessment – and an evaluation of the extent to which a student has met the goal(s) of the course, or summative assessment. Teachers’ gradebooks and the gradebooks of online learning management systems combine these grades in some way to arrive at the final grade. 

The problem is that formative assessment is done while the students are still learning, when they haven’t yet mastered the course outcomes, when they are bound to make mistakes – those mistakes that their teachers tell them it is “okay to make.” But if a student does poorly on some of those formative assessments, and the grade from those assessments factors into the student’s final grade, then even if the student eventually succeeds in meeting the course goals, her final grade is brought down by the low grades she received while she was learning and making mistakes. If she cared about her final grade, then it was certainly not okay for her to make mistakes, contrary to what her teacher told her at the start. 

If we truly want students not to worry about making mistakes as they progress in their learning, then formative assessment shouldn’t figure into the final course grade. Instead, we would determine whether and to what extent the student had met the course learning goals. Students could follow their own route to achievement without fear of mistakes along the way bringing their final grade down. 

Shifting the burden of the final grade onto final summative assessments brings its own problems, however. In particular, it is stressful for students if their entire grade for a course hinges on how well they do in a final, summative assessment. How to deal with that is another discussion…

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