My Favorite No: A Great Way to Celebrate Student Mistakes in Math

My Favorite No is a great assessment activity that turns students’ mistakes into collective opportunities for learning. It can be done with any math topic or content. It takes very little time, so teachers can do it often and weave it into the daily routine of their class. I learned about it from a middle school teacher named Leah Alcala through a video in the Teaching Channel video collection.

The premise behind it is simple – students making mistakes is one of the most important tools we have when it comes to helping them learn. We want to expose their mistakes in class, because that is when they can learn something. My Favorite No is a great way to look at student mistakes without shame – it is a empowering thing to tell your class, “This is a really great mistake.”

This video is short – only six minutes – and gives you a good sense of how My Favorite No works.

As you watch the video, here are a few questions to think about:

  • What criteria the teacher uses to select her favorite no?
  • What are the benefits of talking about mistakes in this way?
  • Why does she have the class start with things that are working well in the favorite no?
  • What are the benefits of having the students correct the mistake, instead of the teacher doing it herself?

Note: The activity in the video asks students to multiply binomials and/or combine like terms. This is obviously the sort of problem that we would only expect to see in an HSE level class of adult learners, if at all. But My Favorite No can be used with students at any level with whatever math topics your students are working on.

Try it out in your class and let me know how it goes.

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About Mark Trushkowsky

Mark enjoys doing math problems that take weeks, family sing-a-longs and reading late into the night. At 16, he believed the next revolution would be waged through poetry. Now he believes it is adult basic education. But he still likes poetry. Mark has worked in adult literacy and HSE since 2001. He is a founding member of the NYC Community of Adult Math Instructors (CAMI). He was born and raised in Brooklyn where he lives happily ever after with his partner Sarah and their daughter Liv. Follow me on Twitter (@mtrushkowsky)

4 thoughts on “My Favorite No: A Great Way to Celebrate Student Mistakes in Math

  1. What a powerful technique! I was really moved by this video. I’m so excited to try this out with a class. I’ve definitely been interested in exploring mistakes and misunderstandings in a math classroom, but I’ve never had an easy way to do it. I love the postcard warm-up as a quick way to find out what students understand. One of the things I loved about the Favorite No as it’s explained here is that it is strength-based. The class talked about all the good and correct things that were done before getting to the mistake. I think students often think they don’t understand anything if they get a question wrong when the reality is that there may be multiple correct understandings that build upon one another and then derailed by a smaller misunderstanding.

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  2. Here’s another technique Ms. Alcala uses in her classroom – Highlighting Mistakes: A Grading Strategy ( Adult education classrooms often do not grade students’ work, but this manner of normalizing student mistakes would not only help them take more risks, but also learn more from their own mistakes. I am particularly interested in her idea of a “flow-through” credit.

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