Kids perform better in school if they know failure, and trying again, is part of the learning process, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.
The research included several experiments intended to see whether parents and teachers can help students succeed by changing the way learning material is presented to them. Study experiments included anagram problems and reading comprehension, and researchers found that kids who were told it’s normal to fail and try again did better on the tests than those who did not receive such a pep talk.
“In this research, we showed that helping children to interpret difficulty, not as a sign of intellectual limitation but as the normal learning outcome, improved their performance on very demanding and difficult tasks and reduced their feelings of incompetence,” said study co-author Frederique Autin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Poitiers in Poitiers, France. “What our data revealed is that reorienting the interpretation of difficulty boosted children’s working memory, that is the ability to process and remember information.”
“Experiencing difficulty when we work on a demanding problem may raise the possibility that we are not that smart after all,” said Jean-Claude Croizet, co-author of the study. “Difficulty makes us nervous because it is often associated with lower ability.”
One experiment included 111 French schoolchildren ages 11 and 12. They were given a difficult anagram problem that was too difficult for any of them to solve. Afterwards, researchers told half the kids that failure is common and to be expected when learning. The other group were simply asked how they tried to solve the problem by the researchers. The group that received the pep talk scored better on further tests than the group of kids who did not receive the talk.
“Fear of failing can hijack the working memory resources, a core component of intellectual ability,” the researchers said. “Fear of failing not only hampers performance, it can also lead students to avoid difficulty and therefore the opportunities to develop new skills. Because difficulty is inherent to most academic tasks, our goal was to create a safer performance environment where experiencing difficulty would not be associated with lower ability.”
“Indeed, those who are smart succeed,” Autin said. “This is what we often believe. But science tells a different story. Believing that success reflects higher ability and failure lower competence is not only wrong, but we show that it is detrimental to intellectual efficiency during challenging tasks.”
While the researchers noted the students’ improvement on tests was likely temporary, working memory may get a boost from a simple dose of self-confidence. The researchers said teachers and parents should provide positive reinforcement and point out kids’ progress rather than test scores.
“The cognitive gains obtained in our research may offer promising prospects for application in education because working memory capacity underlies a wide range of complex activities like learning, problem solving and language comprehension,” Autin said.