Why Teaching Students to Fail Well Matters

November 10, 2014

Failing almost never feels like a positive experience. But the way we react to failure can dramatically impact our ability to learn and how well we do on future tasks.

According to research by social psychologist Carol Dweck, students who view failure as a sign of low intelligence and ability rather than a necessary part of the learning process are at risk of experiencing declining performance and lowered persistence. Dweck calls this response to failure the helpless pattern. This stands in contrast to the mastery-oriented response, where students remain focused on achieving mastery despite difficulties.

Don't let failure become a roadblock to future success. "Crossroad: Success or   Failure" is licensed by stockmonkeys.com under CC by 2.0
Don’t let failure become a roadblock to future success. “Crossroad: Success or Failure” is licensed by stockmonkeys.com under CC by 2.0

To test how much a helpless pattern to failure can impact student learning and performance, Dweck and her colleague Barbara Licht conducted a study with fifth graders. Students were sorted into two groups, both of which had students who were prone to helpless responses or mastery-oriented responses. Each group was given an instruction booklet, followed by a seven-question mastery test. While one group had a paragraph that was concise and clear, the other group’s paragraph was confusing and difficult to understand.

For the group that received the concise paragraph, helpless and mastery-oriented students performed similarly: 68.4 percent of the mastery-oriented students and 76.6 percent of the helpless mastered the material.

But it was a completely different story for the group that received the confusing passage. While 71.9 percent of the mastery-oriented students passed the test, only 34.6 percent of the helpless pattern students passed the exam.

Making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Check out our Inspirational Quotes Pinterest Board for classroom poster ideas that reframe mistakes in a constructive light. Creating an environment that embraces failure can empower students to try new strategies and persist in the face obstacles, making them stronger learners.

What strategies do you use to help students deal with mistakes? Share with us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Google+!

Post by Stephanie Li, PRIME Fellow

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