If you’ve ever studied for a standardized test, then you know how common – and frustrating – it can be to make the same mistake multiple times. There are so many reasons this happens: we might fail to truly understand the relevant concept; maybe we fail to remember a concept, even if we understand it; or we could fail to recognize when to apply a concept; and the list goes on.

Have you ever missed a question, looked at the right answer, and thought to yourself, “Oh, I understand how to get the right answer. I could have easily gotten this question right”? There’s an extremely high chance you’ve done this – I certainly have. Unfortunately, when we reassure ourselves like this, we’re usually being dishonest with ourselves. It’s flawed reasoning to say that just because we understand the right answer, we could have arrived at the right answer all along.

Making mistakes is natural, but learning from our mistakes often takes much more effort than we think. Making the same mistake one hundred times, for instance, doesn’t guarantee that we’ll get things right on our one-hundred-and-first try. What can we do to ensure we’re learning from our mistakes?
Perhaps most importantly, we need to make sure we have the right mindset. Instead of telling ourselves that we could have gotten a question right, so missing the question is no big deal, we must instead be ready to admit that we made a mistake. Only then can we recognize that there is room for improvement! We have to be honest with ourselves.

The next step is to consider both the immediate and root causes of our mistakes. Imagine you missed a math word problem because you didn’t read the entire question. If you’ve made this same mistake multiple times, and you tell yourself the same thing every time, then clearly you need to do something differently. The problem won’t go away if you just keep telling yourself, “I would’ve gotten this right if I had read the whole question, so it’s no big deal”. Admit that you made a mistake so that you can think about the immediate cause of the mistake. The immediate cause is usually something specific that you can identify straightforwardly.

“I missed this question because I didn’t take the time to read the whole question.”
Now consider the root cause of the mistake. Root causes are typically weaknesses in our habits or reasoning.
“I don’t take my time when I’m doing word problems, because I get bored/worried about time/overconfident/confused by all the words/etc.”

The list of possible root causes is extensive, and it’s up to you to figure out what went wrong.
When we understand the immediate and root causes of our mistakes, we can begin to think about short-term and long-term solutions. Generally, the short-term solution addresses the immediate cause, and the long-term solution addresses the root cause. A short-term solution to our example mistake could be a self-imposed rule: “I will not answer word problems until I’ve read every single piece of information”. A long-term solution could look like this: “I will sharpen my reading comprehension skills so that I feel less confused/intimidated by long word problems.”

Now we have a framework for recognizing our mistakes and reflecting on them in a productive way – but do we really need to go through this process for every question we miss?
If we want to maximize our learning from mistakes, then the answer is a resounding yes. We should never let a wrong answer slip by without examining where we went wrong. In addition to maximizing our learning, we’ll have a much better sense of which mistakes we make most often.

To recap:
• Just because you understand your mistake, doesn’t mean you’ve learned from it.
• Your mindset is crucial: admit when you made a mistake, and be honest that you need to learn something from it.
• Think about the immediate cause – the most specific reason you missed the question
• Think about the root cause – the habit or reasoning that led you to a wrong answer
• Address both the immediate and root causes with short and long term solutions