Mistake-Proofing Teaching

I first began teaching as an adjunct professor in 1998, followed by full-time employment in higher education in 1999. In those early years, I experienced different types of time-consuming errors many of which simply seemed to be part of the process of educating people. It soon became clear that errors did not have to be part of the process.

So, I embarked on a long-term effort to reduce and eliminate errors. The general approach I took was to focus on anything that caused confusion because confusion almost invariably led to errors – made by myself as well as by students. I identified the root cause of anything that caused confusion, and immediately corrected it. As you might imagine, I was making many corrections every day. I was pleased with the progress I made over the years, with errors being far fewer in number and frequency. Yet, errors kept happening.

My initial focus on reducing confusion led me to a focus on mistake-proofing my courses in ways similar to how I learned how to mistake-proof processes when I worked in industry. I now view teaching as a big mistake-proofing activity, essential – absolutely essential – for achieving the desired learning outcomes and to help assure that information from the course is retained by students and applied to their real-world problems.

The benefits for students are less time spent contacting the professor to ask questions; clarity on what needs to be done, how to do it, and by when; fewer students drop the course; more effective learning; and better grades. The benefits for the professor is an enormous reduction in time-consuming re-work and less frustration because processes go according to plan.

2 thoughts on “Mistake-Proofing Teaching

  1. Jeff Morrow

    Next step in mistake-proofing learning: direct support of the new skill in real-time (most of the time performance of a new skill is why we instruct in the first place). The most exciting version of this is in electronic performance support systems (think TomTom GPS) and one of the most venerable is Toyota check sheets. Voila: standard performance without instructors and classes!

  2. Bob Emiliani Post author

    Steven Withers made a similar comment on LinkedIn: ” It’s also about change management. Just like a worker starting work in a new or improved process, students entering a new program or course are in the middle of a change. The better and clearer the communication and standard work, the quicker they will adjust.”


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