Mistakes are OK

In the lab, nature can throw surprises at you and sometimes you can surprise yourself too. When a student comes to me with a sullen face and tells me they messed up or their results don’t make any sense; the first thing I tell them is that “mistakes happen” (as long as they didn’t burn down the lab or harm anyone of course). The second thing I say is: “as long as you learn from them, it’s ok.”, which is followed by “walk me through what you did, let’s figure this out.”. The purpose of a teaching lab is to learn. And sometimes the best learning happens by making mistakes…Ms Frizzle and I share the same sentiment. Let me tell you why.

As Laura discussed, making mistakes can present the opportunity to problem solve and to learn. This can also be defined as experiential learning, where you learn through experiences and by reflecting on them. The student would be required to think about what they did, in order to try and understand how things went awry. For example, back in the day, when I was an undergrad in the same teaching lab that I currently TA, we did an experiment where we needed to transfer a solution that contained a tagged protein to another tube that had beads that would bind to that tag. I wasn’t able to isolate any protein. My TA was confused, so she asked me what I did and to show her all of my tubes. Turns out the beads didn’t fit through tip of the transfer pipet I used and I ended up transferring buffer (water with salts in this case) and left the beads behind. I was pretty embarrassed, but I learned a very important lesson. Beads don’t fit through small tips. Now, as a grad student, I smile when I use beads in my experiments and I make sure I cut the ends of my tips. Lesson learned.

Photo by GradLife McGill Intagrammer @lissa.joy // @gradlifemcgill

When students make mistakes, they’re often overcome with fear. Will the TAs be upset with me? How will I write my report? Will I lose marks? The TAs will not be upset with you, you can write your report, and unfortunately, you might lose some part marks. However, more often than never, if the gel melted when you tried to lift it, the TAs will be understanding and not remove marks. Even the most hardworking students can end up mixing the wrong solutions or running the gel the wrong way. Although the labs are optimally designed to be fool-proof, as with any experiment, things can go magically wrong (more so in grad school, but that’s a rant for another day). In those cases, it’s not actually the students’ fault. When something goes wrong, it’s better to look at the situation and ask yourself why this happened and how can I fix this (if it’s fixable…if your gel ran the wrong way, I’m afraid your samples are swimming in all that buffer now). The idea is to learn!

This post was specifically focused on my experiences with undergrads that I have TA-ed, and also students I have mentored in the lab. But the idea of learning from mistakes is universal and can be applied to everyday life too.  As a grad student, I have made many mistakes, especially when I’m learning new techniques. If I never made and effort to understand and learn from my mistakes, getting through grad school would be infinitely more difficult. For those of you who are TAs, I encourage you to explain the importance of learning from mistakes to your students. A willingness to be OK with mistakes and to learn from them can go a long way.


This is the fourth entry in the blog series, The TA. Check out the previous entry, I can’t wait to grade reports! Stay tuned for more!

Banner photo is by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @cluuful // @gradlifemcgill

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