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What is your course “error climate”?

By Judith Ross-Bernstein

Recently, a compelling study by  Steuer and Dresel, A Constructive Error Climate as an Element of Effective Learning Environments (2015) came by my desk. It was in my to read file when I spotted a blog and a tool developed by Josh Eyler, at the Rice Center for Teaching Excellence addressing the “error climate” of classrooms in higher education. What determines the error climate aspect of a classroom? That we learn through our mistakes is common sense, the general rule of thumb, yet barriers for students are real and well documented (Duckworth, Peterson,  Matthews & Kelly, 2007; Duckworth, & Seligman, 2005; Dweck, 2015; Seghal, 2015; Steele, 2011).

Error climate. “I find my students so unwilling to make mistakes.” “If only my students would feel comfortable enough to take learning  risks.” Sentiments like these are most often expressed with the intention to improve teaching, student engagement and learning. While concerns for student disposition toward learning risks are articulated, they often arise in broader conversations regarding classroom climate.  Classroom climate is:

“…the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. Climate is determined by a constellation of interacting factors that include faculty – student interaction, the tone instructors set, instances of stereotyping or tokenism, the course demographics (for example, relative size of racial and other social groups enrolled in the course), student – student interaction, and the range of perspectives represented in the course content and materials. All of these factors can operate outside as well as inside.” (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro & Lovett, 2010 pg. 170)

Complex,  inextricably linked variables determine the temperature of the water in which we swim, so to speak, and has implications for learning and performance. We know that a negative climate may impede learning and performance; a positive climate can energize students’ learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, & Lovett, 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Steuer and Dresel’s definition of error climate adds yet another wave in the  classroom climate sea.

“the perception, evaluation and utilization of errors as integral elements of the learning process within the social context of the classroom” (Steuer and Dresel, 2015).

From the point of faculty teaching practices, Eyler asks, how does one convey to students that errors and mistakes provide valuable opportunities for growth and learning?  How do faculty design courses and assignments that reflect this belief (2016)? He draws essential elements of an “error climate” from Steuer and Dresel’s study to create an assessment tool. Elements include: error tolerance by the teacher, irrelevance of errors for assessment, teacher support following errors, absence of negative teacher reactions, absence of negative classmate reactions, taking the error risk, analysis of errors, and functionality of errors for learning (2015).

Eyler offers the Error Climate Inventory for College Instructors for free.  Try taking the pulse of your current “error climate.”  See if it is at all helpful as a resource or a discussion starter as you consider course design and classroom practices.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M. & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.

Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck Revisits “‘Growth Mindset.” Education Week Blog.

Eyler,  Josh (2016). What is the error climate of your course? Rice Center for Teaching Excellence

Pascarella, E. & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2): A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Seghal, P. (2015). The Profound Emptiness of Resilience. Downloaded 12/5/2015 @

Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York: Norton.

Steuer, G. and Dresel, M. (2015). A Constructive Error Climate as an Element of Effective Learning Environments.Psychological Test and Assessment Modeling,  (57)2, 262-275.

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