As seen in the Oct. 25 issue
Max Stahl, comment editor
It’s no secret that we learn from our mistakes. The idea is so old, we even have a cliché that sums the entire thing up: “Just because you fail doesn’t mean you’re a failure.” Nonetheless, many students’ behavior, and even some elements of our academic system, seem inclined toward perfection. How many times, during a class discussion, have you noticed hands darting up around you while you or one of your classmates struggled to produce an answer? This may seem innocuous, but, on top of being disrespectful, it could potentially impede learning.
Cognitive research indicates that attempting to solve a problem before knowing the solution enhances long-term learning, even if the attempt leads to a wrong answer. A study conducted in 2012 at UCLA by Nate Kornell, Matthew Hays and Robert Bjork found that “unsuccessful recall attempts might enhance learning if [students] engage active learning processes.” In other words, struggling and failing tends to be more useful than memorizing or immediately being given an answer, provided students are willing to learn from their mistakes.
In some cases, being wrong has proven even more useful than being right, in terms of retention of knowledge. According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2007, repeating mistakes sets off an “early warning signal” in the brain that alerts us that we have already made this mistake. The reaction, taking place 0.1 seconds after the mistake is made, is, in essence, an expression of surprise. In a more public setting, the reaction can also be linked to embarrassment. These sensations may be unpleasant, but they are essential to our growth.
It is not enough, then, for most people to simply read course material and take good notes in class. Participation and active engagement with the course material are critical to understanding and retention. This means answering questions before being given the answer and solving problems without giving up. Even if you’re wrong, you’ll still get something out of the effort.
Teachers — and not just students — can also apply these psychological principles to their work. By encouraging students to struggle with difficult concepts and not allowing them to give up when they get frustrated, teachers can foster a deeper level of learning than students would experience from being spoon fed the information. Furthermore (and I know this will be unpopular with students), teachers can promote long-term retention by giving harder exams. According to the UCLA study, “taking challenging tests — instead of avoiding errors — may be one key to effective learning.” Because of pressure from parents and anxiety about college admissions, students prefer to take easy tests, but, it turns out, taking more difficult tests may be in their best interest.
The public has long known that the old model of errorless education is ineffective, and although much of it has been done away with, vestiges still exist. Standardized tests (especially those that don’t tell students which questions they got wrong), students’ obsession with grades and a general attitude of disdain toward “dumb” questions and comments in class contribute to an atmosphere that is not conducive to learning. Though we’ve made progress, we still favor perfection.
But you already know all this. Perhaps writing this article was a mistake. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to write a better one in the next issue.