When I first saw the title of this article in Science Daily I was skeptical. I figured an article with the title Reducing Academic Pressure May Help Children Succeed would be along the “A for effort” lines. Unfortunately there seems to be a trend towards grade inflation, in spite of how current pedagogical research shows that reducing academic pressure in this way doesn’t actually improve students’ learning. But this article covering research by Dr. Frederique Autin demonstrates how failure is a normal part of the learning process and can be used to actually improve the long term outcome.
It’s not about reducing pressure through grade inflation or dumbing down the work, in fact Autin’s study actually took a close look at the reverse situation. In one experiment he gave students a problem to solve that was above their abilities, but the students in the test group were told that learning was difficult and that failure was common while the control group were just asked to solve the problem. Both groups were then given a test to measure their working memory capacity.
The students who were told that learning is difficult performed significantly better on the working memory test, especially on more difficult problems, than the second group or a third control group who took the working memory test without doing the anagrams or discussions with researchers.
As with all studies of this nature it’s important to put the results into a proper context. For example, the students’ improvements were temporary, yet there are some important implications.
[T]he results showed that working memory capacity may be improved simply by boosting students’ confidence and reducing their fear of failure. “Our research suggests that students will benefit from education that gives them room to struggle with difficulty,” Autin said. “Teachers and parents should emphasize children’s progress rather than focusing solely on grades and test scores. Learning takes time and each step in the process should be rewarded, especially at early stages when students most likely will experience failure.”
I see failure as not just a useful incentive to push students, but an essential part of the learning process and one that both students and teachers need to experience. Students need to learn that they will make mistakes and that errors provide important feedback. Teachers will also make mistakes in pedagogy and be aware that there is always room for them to improve their instructions as well. One way in which we can improve our teaching would be to introduce our students to failure in a positive way, as something essential rather than something to be avoided.