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Occasional failures could make learning new things more effective

Researchers suggest failing is essential to understanding new information

Photo (c) AntonioGuillem - Getty Images
While researchers are constantly trying to figure out what it is that allows kids to excel in the classroom, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Arizona discovered that failure could be a key element. 

According to the researchers, it’s hard to learn new things if you’re always succeeding. The team points out that failure is not only normal, but it’s also beneficial — around 15 percent of the time. 

“These ideas that were out there in the education field — that there is the ‘zone of proximal difficulty,’ in which you ought to be maximizing your learning - we’ve put that on a mathematical footing,” said researcher Robert Wilson. 

The benefits of failing

The researchers put their theory to the test on computers. They wanted to figure out how much of a challenge is crucial for optimal learning so that they could better understand when it’s okay to fail. 

After having computers complete simple identifying and sorting tasks, the researchers discovered the “85% Rule.” Ultimately, the computers performed at their best when they weren’t right all the time and there was a margin of error. 

“If you have an error rate of 15 percent or accuracy of 85 percent, you are always maximizing your rate of learning in these two-choice tasks,” said Wilson. 

Don’t shy away from a challenge

The findings emphasize that an element of challenge needs to be present in order for students to get the most out of what they’re being taught so that they can really retain the information. When it comes to students adopting this mentality in class, or consumers of any age who may be taking on a new skill, the researchers do advise that these findings shouldn’t be followed precisely. The computers involved in the study weren’t posed with any theoretical questions, but were instead tested with simple problems that had clear right or wrong answers. 

However, these findings do emphasize an interesting side of learning, which is that consumers should always be looking for a challenge and shouldn’t shy away from failure or giving a wrong answer, as doing so could serve to enhance the overall learning experience. 

“If you are taking classes that are too easy and acing them all the time, then you probably aren’t getting as much out of a class as someone who’s struggling but managing to keep up,” said Wilson. “The hope is we can expand this work and start to talk about more complicated forms of learning.” 

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