Taxonomies for and implications of errors in the learning process

Principal Metaphors

There are two principal metaphors underlying the concepts of “errors” and “mistakes,” each indexed to a deeply inscribed metaphor of learning:

  • Error – derived from the Latin errorem “a wandering, a meandering, a going astray,” which is clearly indexed to Path-Following Metaphor of learning
  • Mistake – meaning literally “take badly” or “take wrongly,” which are evidently indexed to the Acquisition Metaphor of learning


The English words were coined in the 1300s–1500s, during the same era that their associated metaphors of learning came into popular usage.


Errors and Mistakes are frequently identified as important – and, often, fecund – sites of learning. Many reasons are offered, including that errors and mistakes can provide focused information on gaps or flawed associations in one’s knowledge, and common errors and mistakes can be used to highlight critical elements of concepts. While “error” and “mistake” are synonyms in everyday parlance, the words tend to be differentiated in the academic literature. Emphasizing that no hard-and-fast distinction can be made ...

  • Errors – in general, the more formal and technical term. Typologies of Errors tend to be more strongly associated with formal and scientific discourses. Most often, Errors are seen to be rooted in ignorance or other lack of knowledge, and so they cannot be self-corrected.
  • Mistakes – in general, the preferred term when talking about where and why individual learners go wrong. Mistakes are typically defined as (usually accidental) deviations from what one knows to be correct, and so they can be self-corrected if the learner is made aware of them.
Some Types of Mistakes

There are many typologies and taxonomies of Mistakes, although we were unable to locate any that are anchored to a recognized theory of learning or associated with substantial empirical evidence. Frequently identified categories of Mistakes include:

  • A-Ha Mistakes (Mysterious Mistakes) – the recognition of a mistaken assumption or a missed detail – typically triggered when an uncritical action or interpretation yields an unexpected result. Subtypes include:
    • Ignorant Mistakes – mistakes that are attributable to a missed piece of critical-and-available information
  • Sloppy Mistakes (Lazy Mistakes; Messy Mistakes; Performance Mistakes) – mistakes made while performing familiar, well-learned tasks
  • Stretch Mistakes (Beginner Mistakes) – mistakes that occur when one engages with new or otherwise challenging content or situations (i.e., that are associated with unnoticed subtleties, unrecognized complexities, unmastered skills, and other sorts of unfamiliarity)
  • Systemic Mistakes – errors that are due to a faulty system in which one is operating
  • Other “mis-”es – that is, near-synonyms and subcategories of Mistakes:
    • Misconception – demonstrably flawed belief about some aspect of reality (Compare Concept, under Conceptual Change.)
    • Misinterpretation – failure to make appropriate sense of an event, typically due to assuming or imposing inappropriate associations
    • Misperception – a flaw of noticing, owing to either missing a critical detail or projecting an irrelevant detail (Compare Perception, under Cognitive Science.)
    • Misrepresentation – a flawed, false, or misleading account (See also Misinformation and Disinformation, under DIKW Pyramid.)
    • Misunderstanding – any of the above (Compare Understanding, under Deep vs. Surface Learning.)
Some Types of Errors

The literature on Errors is considerably more structured than the literature on Mistakes, and Errors are most often defined and differentiated in the context of formal inquiry. Well recognized taxonomies and typologies of Errors include:

  • Category Error (Categorical Mistake; Category Mistake; Mistake of Category)  (Gilbert Ryle, 1940s) – when elements that belong in one category are inappropriately assumed or asserted to belong in another category, or when properties that apply to one phenomenon (or level of organization) are inappropriately assumed or asserted to apply to another phenomenon (or level of organization)
  • Experimental Errors – any type of error that can arise in the context of a deliberately structured scientific experiment
    • Systematic Errors – errors with an identifiable cause and that generate results that are consistently inaccurate (e.g., too high, or too low)
      • Instrumental Errors – errors that are due to a flawed instrument
      • Observational Errors – inaccurate measurements by the observer
      • Environmental Errors – errors introduced by failing to notice or manage an external influence
      • Theoretical Errors – errors introduced through relying on an inappropriate model or set of equations
    • Random Errors – errors without an easily identifiable cause that contribute to random fluctuations in measurements (e.g., half are too high, and half are too low)
      • Observational Errors – inconsistent judgments by an observer
      • Environmental Errors – errors due to unpredictable and/or unmanageable events in the setting
    • Blunders (Gross Errors) – outright errors that are not consistent enough to be classified as Systematic Errors and not frequent enough to be classified as Random Errors
  • Types of Errors in Hypothesis Testing
    • Type I Error (False Positive) – technically, rejecting the null hypothesis that is true (illustratively, diagnosing a healthy person is as ill)
    • Type II Error (False Negative) – technically, failing to reject the null hypothesis that is false (illustratively, diagnosing an ill person as healthy)
    • Type III Error – technically, correctly rejecting the null hypothesis but for the wrong reason (colloquially, asking the wrong question but getting the right answer (illustratively, identifying someone as ill but misdiagnosing the illness)

As for direct advice for teaching, discourses that offer explicit advice on interpreting and utilizing Errors and Mistakes include:

  • Error Analysis – a variously defined term. Among educators, two prominent usages have to do with (1) working backward with students to identify the roots of their errors, and (2) an analytical method that involves tracking a learner’s errors, aiming to determine if those errors are systematic and, if so, to identify their origins
  • Error-Driven Learning – a variously interpreted term that is most often used in reference to both human learning and Machine Learning that involves making and correcting errors early in the process, thus exposing problematical associations before they become entrenched
  • Intentional Error – deliberately making a mistake in front of students for some pedagogical reason (which can range from checking on whether they’re paying attention to gauging their conceptual understanding of the topic at hand)
  • Mistake-Based Learning (Failing Forward; Mistake-Driven Learning) (John Maxwell, 2000s) – an environment or attitude in which mistakes are not regarded as something to be avoided, but as inevitable and potentially powerful elements of learning. That is, mistakes are embraced as opportunities to question assumptions, to problem solve, and to otherwise think critically – thus supporting self-awareness and self-confidence while developing cognitive and social skills.


Once seen as events to be avoided, Errors and Mistakes were recast as potentially rich learning opportunities in the last half of the 1900s, alongside the emergence of perspectives that framed learning in terms of highly individualized processes of rendering personal experiences coherent (e.g., Sensemaking Metaphor, Meaning-Making Metaphor, Schema Theory, and other Non-Trivial Constructivisms). While there is a growing body of evidence that supports this conviction (see below), education-focused discussions of Errorsand Mistakes are also plagued by naïve and/or false assertions, such as the popular-but-unfounded claim that “Mistakes make your brain grow.”

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Wildly diverse

Status as a Theory of Learning

See the Commentary, above. Arguably, one’s perspective on the role of errors/mistakes in learning can constitute a theory. For example, some theories begin with the conviction that learning is about avoiding Errorsand Mistakes. (See, e.g., Errorless Learning, under Operant Conditioning, and Error Factory Theory, under Associative Learning.) Others, such as pretty much every entry in the Coherence Discourses region of our map, revolve around the principle that Errors and Mistakes are inevitable and necessary aspects of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

As illustrated with the examples of Error Analysis and Intentional Errors (see above), some evidence-based and systematic advice has been given to the role of Errors and Mistakes in classroom teaching. In recent years, the topic has been especially tightly tethered to Mindset, where popular commentators have emphasized the value of making and correcting of Errors and Mistakes for both supporting conceptual development and nurturing one’s self confidence.

Status as a Scientific Theory

We have identified contemporary considerations of Errors and Mistakes as “not fully scientific” because (1) definitions and typologies are sometimes vague, (2) there is limited systematic and/or published research into Mistakes (i.e., as distinguished from Errors, as described above), and (3) pedagogical advice is uneven and often opinion heavy. With those qualifications in mind, it is important to mention that there appear to be distinct trends toward more consistent and substantial insights – bolstered, in particular, by research in Neuroscience(e.g., showing increases in neuronal activity when errors are highlighted and analyzed) and Psychology (showing changes in attention and other activities when mistakes are noticed).


  • A-Ha Mistakes (Mysterious Mistakes)
  • Blunders (Gross Errors)
  • Category Error (Categorical Mistake; Category Mistake; Mistake of Category) 
  • Environmental Errors
  • Error Analysis
  • Error-Driven Learning
  • Experimental Errors
  • Instrumental Errors
  • Misconception
  • Misinterpretation
  • Misperception
  • Misrepresentation
  • Mistake-Based Learning (Failing Forward; Mistake-Driven Learning)
  • Misunderstanding
  • Observational Errors
  • Random Errors
  • Sloppy Mistakes (Lazy Mistakes; Messy Mistakes; Performance Mistakes)
  • Stretch Mistakes (Beginner Mistakes)
  • Systematic Errors
  • Systemic Mistakes
  • Theoretical Errors
  • Type I Error (False Positive)
  • Type II Error (False Negative)
  • Type III Error

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Errors” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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