Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

I probably don’t use Jessie’s strategy as much as I should, but it relates to some other things I do with new folks in the lab. I try to make it clear that there are lots of things to learn as one develops as a scientist – everyone needs to learn how to read a paper, how to design an experiment, the various techniques we use in the lab, how to analyze data, how to write, etc. We all make mistakes along the way. Asking questions and getting help from others is a totally normal and desirable part of this process of developing as a scientist. I think part of the similarity with Jessie’s strategy is this: we need to create lab environments where it’s okay for people to make mistakes and to learn from them.

Or, as Andrew MacDonald recently put it:

This framing also relates to something I was reminded of on twitter (I can’t find the original tweet now) that I have used in teaching in the past and plan on using again this semester. The idea is to reframe the way we ask our classes about questions – instead of “Does anyone have any questions?” (which all too often leads to crickets), ask “What questions do you have?” The last time I taught intro bio, I occasionally would pause to ask students to write down different things they were unsure of. We then covered some in class, and, for things that weren’t covered, they had a list prepared for office hours, study groups with friends, etc.

Creating a supportive, constructive environment in the lab and classroom definitely takes sustained effort rather than just quick strategies, but quick strategies are still helpful. So, I’m curious to hear about other strategies people use – similar to Jessie’s question or asking “What questions do you have?” – that can help. I’d love to get more ideas!

12 thoughts on “Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

  1. Hi Meghan, software that allows me to ask students questions in class that they can answer anonymously, allows me to get a feel very quickly for whether students are understanding a concept. And students aren’t forced to step under the spotlight.
    In my lab, I’ve always found there is a defining moment when graduate students realize I’m quite a bit dumber than they had assumed I was at the beginning. It’s not a great feeling to watch the truth dawn on them but it usually opens the door to a much more productive relationship. Ultimately, the best supervisor-graduate student relationships occur when we learn from each other but that doesn’t happen until the student is confident they have things to teach you. The take-home message for me was – allow your students to see you make mistakes and lots of them (luckily, that’s not a problem for me). Don’t edit yourself – let students hear all the bad ideas you have. When you, as the supervisor, screw up (forget a meeting, take to long to review something, miss a deadline), own it. And don’t be toooo hard on yourself. The message shouldn’t be that screwing up is unacceptable – it’s an inevitable part of doing anything.
    There is a balance between setting high standards and providing an environment where falling short of the standard is part of the process. I suspect most of us have pretty high standards but I deal most days with falling short of my own standards. That’s OK. I suspect most academics set standards that are higher than they can routinely achieve. It’s our job to provide examples of succeeding and failing to hit standards. Most of us are more comfortable doing the former than the latter.

  2. Re: “What questions do you have”, this might be the twitter thread you’re referring to:

    • Quibble: if I asked students to self-assess their own understanding of anything I’d just taught, I’d worry they’d self-assess very inaccurately. I’d rather also (or even instead) ask a clicker question or two testing their understanding.

  3. When I’m training students in my lab’s protist microcosm system, one of the first things I say to them is “If you’re not sure how to do something, or what you’re seeing through the microscope, or whatever, ask me. Even if you think it’s a dumb question (which it isn’t), and even if you’re sure I’ve told you the answer before and you’ve forgotten it. I will never get mad at you for asking. I’d much rather you ask the same question you’ve asked before than make a mistake because you didn’t ask.”

    I also tell them, “If you make a mistake–spill a jar, forget to perform a task, whatever–please tell me. Mistakes happen. To deal with them, I need to know about them.”

    • This reminds me of something the first technician I worked with (when I was an undergrad told me): “Confess all your sins in your lab notebook”. The general message was: we all make mistakes, and what’s important is to be honest about them. The particular framing was a product of us both having been raised Catholic. 🙂

  4. This reminds me of my US history teacher back in the day. He had read a study that most questions in class are asked by the teacher and vowed to change that. This lead to “10 questions ok go!” Was a bit silly because we ended up asking him all sorts of things (what did you have for lunch? Do you have a girlfriend? Etc.) but looking back I think it also helped ask questions about the assignment or something else we did not understand. If you have to ask a question anyway it lowers your fear of looking stupid. Might try that or a version thereof during my next class…..

      • As I remember we were about 25-30 people, I think, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for a bigger class of about 100. It probably wouldn’t work for my 1st semester class with 200+ students though. I think it’s worth a try to see if you get more questions using this approach as it only takes a very short amount of time and no preparation – so easy to try out and drop again if useless.

  5. In class, I sometimes say “Ask me 3 questions” rather than “Are there any questions?”, and it works really well. Sounds similar to what you are referring to. More generally, I’ve modified my grading system so that a lot of the assignments are graded as “Satisfactory” or as “Needs revisions”, and the students get limited (i.e. not too few, not too many) opportunities to revise work and are provided with detailed feedback about what needs to be revised. There aren’t points involved. (Basically, I’m using a sort of hybridized version of what educator Linda Nilson calls ‘specifications grading’.)

  6. I wonder if changing our phrasing at the end of a talk to “What questions do you have?” or something similar would encourage questions in that non-classroom setting as well? I’ve given/attended a fair number of talks where the room is super awkward/quiet after…but surely someone has a question!

  7. Maybe a little tangential to the type of “question-asking” discussed in this post, but one tool to help create a constructive, inquisitive atmosphere in undergrad and (maybe) graduate classrooms is the QFT (Question Formulation Technique) method (https://rightquestion.org/what-is-the-qft/). My undergrad ecology professor used this method pretty heavily in his courses, usually at the beginning of a lecture to frame a new topic, and it was generally well received by students.

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