For Students, Failure Matters More Than You Think

January 27, 2015

While many think that confidence from previous successes encourages students to persist through challenges, it’s actually the way they think about their failures that makes a difference.

Research by social psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates that students who learn to view failure as a result of effort rather than personal ability are better equipped to handle challenges.

In this study, Dweck identified grade school students who fell into severe impairment when faced with failure. These “helpless” students both denigrated their ability and blamed themselves for making mistakes.

To test the theory that experiencing success boosts students’ confidence and helps them deal with failure, one group of helpless students received success training. Participants received fifteen math worksheets that they could successfully complete.

The other helpless students received training that focused on rethinking their failures as a way to help them address challenging situations. Of the fifteen math worksheets students received, three were “failure” trials, meaning they wouldn’t be able to finish all the problems within the time limit. Through adult feedback, students learned to understand their failures as a sign of effort rather than innate ability; if they applied themselves more the next time, they could definitely succeed.

When both groups were given new math worksheets to complete with slightly harder problems, students who were trained to rethink failure showed clear improvement, persisting through those problems and demonstrating better performance than students who received success training.

Encouraging students to view failure in more constructive ways can positively impact their learning and performance. Here are some strategies to help students rethink failure:

  1. After test day, host a feedback session and emphasize the students who worked hard.
  2. Watch your own vocabulary. Students can pick up on your feelings when discussing failure and success.
  3. Check out our previous blog post on 6 statements to help students focus on growth and persistence.

What strategies do you use to help students rethink failure? Share your ideas with us on Facebook, TwitterPinterest, or Google+.

Post by Stephanie Li, PRIME Fellow

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