The Science of Mistakes

To err is human – we’ve all heard the saying, and we all know it’s true. But when human health and human lives are in the balance, mistakes aren’t always easy to understand or accept – particularly if you’re the person who’s made one.

Mark Pijl Zieber’s PhD project examined how student mistakes are managed in nursing education.

Mark Pijl Zieber (BN’93), associate professor with the nursing program in the Faculty of Health Sciences, as well as a registered nurse and who recently completed his PhD through U of A, is determined to not only discover how the fear of making mistakes impacts nursing students’ clinical performance, but also how to improve student learning both before mistakes are made and after they’ve happened.

Raised in Lethbridge, Pijl Zieber is an alumnus of both Lethbridge College and U of L. After earning a nursing diploma in 1990, Pijl Zieber worked full time as a registered nurse for one year before enrolling in the U of L Health Sciences program in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. He later went on to UBC where he focused his Master’s thesis on the teaching and learning dynamic between clinical instructors and their students.

“I have an on-going interest in nursing education, specifically on the clinical side of things,” says Pijl Zieber. “Clinical is where nursing students really put everything together. How we prepare students in theory classes is important, but theory is much different than actual practice. We need to support students in ways that give them confidence in a clinical setting.”

Pijl Zieber’s PhD project examined how student mistakes are managed in nursing education, and presents evidence based solutions for reducing the negative effects mistakes have on student learning and experience.

“We can improve nursing education if we better manage how we deal with students who make mistakes,” says Pijl Zieber. “Of course we’d like it if mistakes never happened, but they naturally do. Some of the interventions nursing instructors advocate when mistakes happen are not evidence based. We can’t intervene based on opinion alone and expect positive outcomes.”

In between his time as a student, Pijl Zieber has taught nursing at Lethbridge College, UBC, and has had two appointments at U of L – one prior to his Master’s study, and the second beginning after his Master’s designation in 2002. Pijl Zieber says he’s happy to be back teaching where his academic career began, and is excited to take on the role of researcher.

“I love how research allows you to see things in new ways. I’m a very practical kind of researcher, and I’m looking forward to really exploring new topics,” says Pijl Zieber. “We have a great program at U of L – there’s a lot of young faculty members here, many of whom are front and centre in research and academia. It’s an innovative and exciting place not only to teach but also to learn. And I really enjoy the opportunities in Lethbridge. It’s a great place to be.”