Using Mistakes as a Teaching Opportunity

March 16, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Note:  This post is not a how-to, but a few reflections about the art of software training.

It’s natural to cringe when you make a mistake while you’re teaching a class.  But over the years, I’ve come to realize that (a) it’s also natural to make mistakes now and then, even if you know your stuff; and (b) mistakes actually can be a great teaching opportunity.  You can use them to test your students’ understanding of the material and to reinforce a lesson.   In fact, I suspect that students sometimes retain the information better if it’s presented after an “Oops!” from the instructor.

During my recent 18-month consulting job as an MS Word trainer / template designer at the U.S. Department of Justice in Los Angeles, I conducted well more than 100 hands-on computer classes for legal assistants, paralegals, attorneys, and other staff members.  Inevitably, on occasion, I made mistakes.  Mostly those errors involved demonstrating a particular feature that didn’t work the way I had described or forgetting a step along the way.  Rather than becoming defensive or overly apologetic, I typically said, “You know what?  I actually like it when I make mistakes while teaching, because it lets us do some problem-solving as a group.  Also, sooner or later, you’re going to do the same thing – and you’ll need to know how to make it right.”

Sometimes I even deliberately did something the wrong way in order to start a discussion about why certain methods of accomplishing a particular task work better than others.

For instance, once or twice while I was showing my class how to paste unformatted text from an old WordPerfect document into a blank document based on one of the new MS Word templates, I ended up with all of the text formatted as a Heading 1 (with auto numbering plus bolding and underlining).  People watching the monitor and viewing the results understandably looked perplexed.  So I said, “Obviously, that’s not the result we wanted.  Can anyone tell me what I did wrong?”

They guessed, “You pasted but kept the formatting from the WordPerfect doc.”  Or “You clicked ‘Bold’ after you pasted.”  I said, “No, although those are good guesses.”

Eventually, someone figured out the correct answer:  “Your cursor was in the heading before you pasted.  That’s why everything took on the Heading 1 style, even though you pasted without formatting.”  (The pleading templates included a few boilerplate headings, such as INTRODUCTION and ARGUMENT.)

“Yes!” I replied. “That’s why you have to be careful about the position of your cursor before you paste into the new document.  Make sure your cursor is in an empty paragraph, one that’s pre-formatted with a text style, and then paste without formatting.  Remember that the pasted text will take on the formatting of the style that’s in effect at your cursor position.”

Lots of “ohhhhs” followed.

“Let’s do it again,” I suggested.  I undid the original paste, made a point of moving the cursor into an empty paragraph and pointed out that the text style was now highlighted in the QuickStyles Gallery (a sneaky way to work in a little refresher on how to tell which style is in effect at the cursor position!), then made sure they watched as I did another Paste and Keep Text Only.

“Voilà!  Now the pasted text has adopted the basic text style, and we can go through and apply heading styles, the block quote style, and so forth.”

At this point, some students scribbled notes; others asked additional questions and/or restated what I had just shown them.  “So you had your cursor in a blank paragraph before you pasted?”  “Yes.”  If they still seemed confused or if they specifically asked, I showed them again.

More commonly, I forgot to turn off “Show / Hide” (i.e., to switch to “Hide” mode) before generating a Table of Authorities.  That mistake is less obvious to the students, because the TOA generates either way.  However, if I realized my error, I stopped and said, “Okay, I forgot a critical step.  What did I do wrong?”  Again, people started guessing.  Almost always, someone quickly called out the correct answer:  “You forgot to turn off ‘Show / Hide.’”

“Gold star!” I replied.  (I started awarding virtual gold stars early on, and much later brought in actual gold-star stickers that I handed out liberally to my students.  As hokey as that sounds, people loved both the virtual and the real gold stars.  Even people who openly made fun of the idea usually took the stickers.)   “I forgot to turn off ‘Show / Hide.’  And why does that matter?”

That question got them thinking.  Some people knew the answer, but others obviously were still unsure.  If someone responded, “Because the pagination might not be accurate,” I’d reinforce that response by saying, “Exactly.  Keep in mind that when ‘Show / Hide’ is on, the TA codes take up room in the document.”  At this point, I scrolled down to a page where a lengthy TA code was visible and made sure they were looking at the monitor.  “Even one TA code for a federal case can take up three or four lines.  As you can imagine, eventually the codes could bump citations down to the next page, which means that when you generate the TOA, the pagination will be inaccurate.”

Going into this much detail might seem excessive, but sometimes it’s just what people need in order to clarify or reinforce a lesson.

Another mistake I made on purpose involved demonstrating how to get the text of a pleading to align with the pleading line numbers.  As part of my class prep, I created a sample doc based on one of their old documents.  I deliberately changed the line spacing of most of the body text so that it was out of alignment with the line numbers.  In class, I explained how to figure out what the line spacing should be:  Go into any header, right-click within the line numbers, choose “Paragraph,” and note the figure under “Line spacing.”  (That, in itself, was a good opportunity to review the meaning of “Exactly” line spacing and, in particular, to discuss “points” – a unit of measurement of the height of the characters.)

I suggested they write down the figure.  However, I emphasized that the line spacing of the pleading line numbers will vary from document to document because people don’t always use docs based on the new templates.  Indeed, as is common in the legal profession, they often copy and reuse old docs that attorneys brought with them from law firms where they used to work or that originated with an opposing counsel.

After the students made note (mental or written) of the line spacing of the pleading line numbers in the problem doc, I had them close out of the header, select / highlight the body text, then open the Paragraph dialog and apply the same line spacing that had been applied to the pleading line numbers.  Usually that worked fine, but sometimes when I showed them, I deliberately failed to include the centered heading at the top of the first page when I selected the text and changed the line spacing.  As a result, the text still appeared to be out of alignment with the line numbers.

I pointed out the problem and said something like, “Hey!  What happened?  We wrote down the line spacing of the pleading line numbers, selected the text, and changed the line spacing appropriately.  Why didn’t it work?”  If they were quiet, I added, “Maybe Jan just doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”  They laughed a bit, and then I continued, “We did almost everything right, but missed something important.  What did we miss?”

Once in a while, somebody figured it out, but usually I had to show them.  “The first time I grabbed the text, I forgot to include the title at the top of the page.  Watch what happens if I select / highlight the title and apply the correct line spacing.”

As soon as I did so, everything adjusted, and all of the text was aligned properly with the pleading line numbers.  (Sometimes they asked me to show them again, which I gladly did.)

These are just a few examples of goofs I made in class (sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose) that I was able to turn into teaching opportunities.  They were valuable teaching tools for a few reasons:  they showed people that despite my expertise with Word, I’m an approachable person who isn’t afraid to make mistakes and poke fun at myself (a very important way of establishing rapport with students); they helped me determine who was still confused about how certain features work; they reinforced, in a dramatic and obvious way, points that I made in class; and they gave us a chance to team up to solve real-world problems that the students are likely to encounter in the course of their work.


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