Children may perform better in school if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
“We focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority,” said Frederique Autin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Poitiers in France.
“By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning.”
“People usually believe that academic achievement simply reflects students’ inherent academic ability, which can be difficult to change,” added Jean-Claude Croizet, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Poitiers who supervised the research based on Autin’s doctoral dissertation.
“But teachers and parents may be able to help students succeed just by changing the way in which the material is presented.”
In the first experiment with 111 French sixth graders, students were given very difficult anagram problems that none of them could solve. Then a researcher talked to the students about the difficulty of the problems. One group was told that learning is difficult and failure is common, but practice will help. Children in a second group were just asked how they tried to solve the problems.
The students then took a test that measures working memory capacity, which is the ability to store and process incoming information. Working memory capacity is a good predictor of many aspects of academic achievement, including reading comprehension, problem solving and IQ, the researchers noted.
The students who were told that learning is difficult performed significantly better on the working memory test, especially on more difficult problems, than the second group or a third control group who took the working memory test without doing the anagrams or talking with researchers.
A second experiment with 131 sixth graders followed a similar procedure with the difficult anagrams and discussions with a researcher. An additional group of students took a simpler anagram test that could be solved, and this group was not told that learning is difficult.
All of the students then completed a reading comprehension test. The children who were told that learning is difficult scored higher than the other groups, including the students who had just succeeded on the simple test.
A third experiment with 68 sixth graders measured reading comprehension and asked questions that measured students’ feelings about their own academic competence. The group that was told that learning is difficult performed better in reading comprehension and reported fewer feelings of incompetence.
The researchers note that the students’ improvement on the tests most likely was temporary, but the results showed that working memory capacity can be improved simply by boosting students’ confidence and reducing their fear of failure.
“Our research suggests that students will benefit from education that gives them room to struggle with difficulty,” Autin said. “Teachers and parents should emphasize children’s progress rather than focusing solely on grades and test scores. Learning takes time and each step in the process should be rewarded, especially at early stages when students most likely will experience failure.”