Give students the confidence to ‘be wrong, loudly’ in online classes

For students to learn effectively online, they must be willing to get things wrong and be corrected. But speaking up in an online class can be intimidating so instructors must take active steps to promote fearless class participation, explains Riley Lovejoy

Riley Lovejoy's avatar
University of Alabama
22 December 2020
Students learning online must be encouraged not to fear getting things wrong
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Professional life requires innovation, and innovation requires boldness. How, though, can we encourage students to boldly participate in online classes when we cannot even look them in the eyes? Carefully curated homepages, clearly worded emails, and well-delivered video lessons only go so far. We must encourage them, as my master’s advisor encouraged me, to “be wrong loudly.”  

I was initially bewildered by the advice to “be wrong loudly”, but my advisor explained: if you are incorrect, and you do not speak up in an academic setting, you will remain ignorant. If you do speak up, someone will correct you. You will learn, and you will not be wrong about the same issue again.  

When you are willing to risk being wrong, you give yourself the opportunity to be heard being right. As I began to recognise the impact of this strange advice on my professional life, I started sharing it with others. 

One student I encouraged to be wrong loudly was Lauren. In high school, she was part of an organisation I work with that introduces girls to careers and opportunities in STEM, and I expected her to have a relatively easy time transitioning to college life. When I encouraged her and the rest of my students to be wrong loudly, I hoped the phrase would be beneficial, but I never thought of Lauren as someone who particularly needed to hear it. 

A couple of months into her sophomore year of college, however, she sent me the following message: “…it kind of reminds me of some advice you gave to encourage us not [to] shy away from a learning experience because we think we don’t have the right answer: ‘be wrong loudly’, which I repeat in my head at least once or twice a day in classes...”  

In an educational climate that has changed more dramatically than anyone anticipated, this advice feels more valuable than ever. My own conversations with college students amid the transition to online learning have shed light on the incredible resolve that the adjustment of their educational expectations and experiences has required.  

For many, the constant changes in personal, educational, and financial situations have left them less secure than ever. How much more difficult must it be to feel confident speaking up in class when your entire world has been shaken – and you may not have even had the chance to meet any of your classmates?  

I followed up with Lauren recently, as I wanted to hear whether the advice remained valuable amid the online transition. In her response she said, “The advice to ‘be wrong loudly’ has been absolutely vital to my transition to online coursework. It is all about not being afraid to venture into new experiences because you feel you may not have the correct answers, or are not well equipped to do so. When in actuality, experience is the best teacher. We are persevering through unprecedented times and giving each other grace during this time while welcoming a new learning experience is absolutely necessary.” 

Encouraging students not to fear getting things wrong is to promote confidence, help them recognise their weaknesses, and foster learning through kind correction. To help them realise that, in academia and life, occasional failure should be embraced rather than feared. Students may experience less intense fear responses to the prospect of failure when educators actively work to alleviate pressure to be continuously right.  

Here are a few practical ways to do this: 

  • Let your students know at the start of your course that no one is expected to always be right. 

  • Share how you have benefitted from speaking up in intimidating situations and learned by experience, in other words, by getting it wrong sometimes. 

  • Alleviate tension by occasionally asking questions that should be easy, for example, something you recently explained. Once a student has answered one question correctly, they may be more confident responding to difficult inquiry.  

  • Do not react to incorrect answers with disappointment or condescension. Praise participation and address inadequate responses with clear explanations or constructive feedback. 

  • Kindly ask students to explain their reasoning. When correct, this will reinforce the point for them and others. When incorrect, it will guide you about which topics may need more explanation.  

 All should be free to say inaccurate things, be kindly corrected, and rethink those concepts. Students, especially in the online learning environment, need to be empowered to raise their voices, even at the risk of being incorrect. They also need to be confident they will receive useful corrections when they are wrong.  

As educators and mentors, it is our responsibility to help students grow and gain the skills they require to one day serve as experts in their respective fields. We must lead them in a way that allows them to work towards being right, loudly. 

Riley Lovejoy is a PhD candidate at the University of Alabama and president of Delta Tree Initiative.  

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