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Want Students to Succeed? Let Them Fail

Sending students the message that struggling is a crucial part of learning helps them excel.

How many times have you heard the mantra "failure is not an option"? The need to succeed whatever the cost permeates our society, and schools are no exception. But new research in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General concludes kids might perform better in school if teachers and parents sent the message that failing is a normal part of learning.

Researchers from France's University of Poitiers conducted several experiments with three groups of 6th graders, giving them difficult anagram problems to solve. They told the first group that "learning is difficult and failure is common, but practice will help, just like learning how to ride a bicycle." The second group received no encouragement but was asked to describe how they tried to solve the problems. The third group, a control group, was given the problems but no other information.

On a subsequent test, the students who had been told that it was normal to have a tough time with these kinds of problems significantly outperformed the two other groups. "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," says Frederique Autin, one of the authors of the study.

The findings challenge the cultural belief that achievement reflects students' academic ability. If we truly want students to excel, Autin says, teachers and parents must stop "focusing solely on grades and test scores" and emphasize progress instead.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user nicolasnova

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