Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My (On Purpose) Mistakes


There's less than a month before the new school year, and I've got a lot of ramping up to do. Part of that, because I've got a frozen position and work at a small library to begin with, is getting ready to do a lot of information literacy instruction in the coming months. (Not that this is really a problem, since I love teaching.)

All this means that I've been thinking about what has and hasn't worked in the past, and how I can apply those ideas to a new setting. Of course, I've written about this a lot in the past. I was an instruction librarian for my entire career before this position, so that is probably isn't a suprise. But I realized that the one thing I haven't discussed before is my policy about making mistakes.

And here it is: in every info lit session, I make sure to make at least a couple mistakes.

Why is that? Well, here are my reasons:
  • If I make a simple mistake, like a spelling error or clicking the wrong button, I can show students how to recognize it when they make their own inevitable errors.
  • Further, I can also show them how to recover from their own mistakes.
  • Which means that the person/people to whom I'm teaching whatever tools or skills will feel more comfortable experimenting since they know they'll be able to overcome setbacks.
  • And it also means that I seem more human and approachable.
I'll admit it took me years to feel comfortable doing this. At the beginning of my career, I was mortified by the slightest misspoken word. But really, I think showing students how to recover from mistakes is one of the most important things I can do as an instruction librarian. Technologies and interfaces change, but comfort with experimenting and learning from mistakes are transferable skills.

How about you? How do you feel about making mistakes when you're teaching?


  1. I understand your point about approachability--it's so important for librarians not to appear to be standoffish or aloof from the students they should be helping. However, I think that any instructor can communicate friendliness, competence, and approachability best by being humorous and enthusiastic. Students can be very harsh judges of perceived incompetence. Certainly one should acknowledge making a mistake or not knowing the answer to a question, but I believe that one should model expertise and not undercut oneself with intentional errors, however well-meaning.

    That said, if you encourage students to identify or correct your mistakes as part of their learning process, then that's a fine teaching tool.

    1. Spelling errors and typos don't make me seem incompetent. Also, I tend to say things like, "Okay, I've not tried this particular search in this database, but let's try it together," I don't sound incompetent - I sound like I'm modeling the learning process.

  2. When I first started teaching infolit classes, I was dead scared to make mistakes. Since I was young, not much older than many of the students, I felt it was imperative that I didn't slip up, because I'd lose credibility. Fast forward six years and I've relaxed a whole lot. The occasional mistake or database glitch happens and I've learned to cover it with humour and letting them see how to retrace their steps and pick up their search.

    In short, I've learned I'm human, not a robot and mistakes will be made. If I don't sweat them, the students usually don't either.

  3. Although I don't teach workshops or classes, I am a previous school teacher and current Library Assistant who helps students with their basic info search queries.

    In both of these positions, I have noticed that students (both younger and older) relax and appear more engaged when they realise the person at the front of the class/behind the lending desk is human and makes mistakes just like they do. As you state above, the important part of this whole experience is how you model the next steps in correcting the mistake. It is definitely something that is hard to overcome at first (I'm a perfectionist - agh!), but now I enjoy sharing a giggle over my spelling 'mind-blanks', and I love it when the students have an 'ah-ha!' moment when I'm working through my errors.