Learning Through Failure

Although the term “learning from your mistakes” has become a bit of a cliché, it turns out there is actually truth behind the phrase. Nate Kornell was interested in clearing up misconceptions about ways to better store information in our memory.  According to this article by Nate and Sam Kornell, our mistakes provide unique opportunities to further our understanding of the subject in question in a way that long and repetitive studying can not.  In this study, Nate challenged the education theory, which is the idea that the best learning occurs when we learn something the right way from the start. Nate opposed the education theory because his data revealed that mistakes actually improve learning instead of hindering it.

In order to exemplify his hypothesis, Nate conducted an experiment in which he made one group of students take an extremely hard test without giving them the answers until after they completed the test. He gave the second group of students the questions and answers at the same time. On a later test, Nate found that these first group of students scored significantly better because they were able to think more critically about each question, were allowed to make mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes. In other words, Nate claims that we are able to learn more from errors due to the fact that we pay much more attention and focus on difficult questions that we do not know the answer to. In addition, our innate frustration with failure and making errors motivates us to find a solution to whatever we do not know.

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Although I would never enjoy taking a course in which the professor purposely makes the exams extremely difficult, I do see how they prove to be useful in aiding to our ability to learn information in a more effective way. In my own experience, I typically study for my big exams in a way that allows me to fail during my studying so that I will not make that mistake when taking the actual exam. To exemplify, I begin my studying by listing off all the things I remember about the material and then I go back and look at the things I failed to remember; these mistakes are what I spend a great deal of my studying on. Although it may seem like a very simplistic and obvious strategy, I know plenty of students who spend hours upon hours looking at every little thing without first testing themselves on areas where they fall short.

I am also able to learn a lot when I get my exams back. Even before professors began incorporating material from old test into new one, like Dr. Rettinger does when he puts one question from last week’s quiz into the current week’s quiz, I would always go back to my old exams and figure out what I got wrong before I even thought about studying for the next test. It is a method that I have found to be extremely useful in my academic life and it is one that is supported by Nate’s research. In addition to the already stated reasoning, I think Nate’s theory of the benefits of learning from mistakes also comes from the fact that it is easier to remember things we got wrong than to remember things we got right because these mistakes imprint themselves into our brains in a very similar way that many active learning methods do.

Even though the main focus of Nate’s theory was rather specific to students and their academic, I think his research could prove to have extremely useful applications in the real world. Not only could it change the way teachers create assessments, it could change how we consume and memorize information on a much larger scale.



1 thought on “Learning Through Failure

  1. apelduna

    Your post reminded me of the concept of “deep practice” popularized by David Coyle in his book The Talent Code. Coyle’s book is about how individuals can improve their abilities by practicing in a way that increases myelination of neurons (myelin insulates neurons and allows them to conduct signals more quickly). Through deep practice, individuals learn to practice skills slowly but on the edge of their ability, meaning practicing where they are inclined to make mistakes rather than staying in a “comfort zone.” By making mistakes then recognizing the mistakes and repeating the exercise until they improve, he theorizes that the same neural pathways are used and reused. This repeated use of the same pathways encourages myelination and the individual becomes faster and more precise when performing the skill. Making mistakes is necessary in order for the correct pathways to be identified and refined. If the individual only practiced what they were good at, the weaker pathways would remain unused and would not be myelinated.

    Hopefully I did a decent enough job of explaining deep practice that you can see the similarities. While Coyle focuses mostly on athletes and physical skills, I believe the same logic applies to cognitive function. As you mentioned, if a student only studies what they already know, they become stronger in an area in which they’re already proficient. By making mistakes and then revisiting them, they strengthen weaker cognitive pathways. I would assume if myelination is occurring through repeated physical activity, the same would occur when we repeat cognitive processes.

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