Research suggests overcoming failure in order to learn better

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Photo Credit: Victoria Smith | Daily Texan Staff

People fear failure because they don’t want to be judged poorly by their peers, but research suggests that failing is the key to learning.

According to Veronica Yan, assistant professor of educational psychology at UT, research in cognitive psychology shows that challenging and difficult learning environments help individuals retain information. However, people might resist challenges due to fear of failure.

“Failure is great, especially early on during learning,” Yan said. “You can’t just go into something and be perfect because that’s not how it is. We can create situations where people experience very low levels of failure but then all that does is lead to an illusion of learning.”

Being okay with failure requires both courage and intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is the ability to revise beliefs when faced with evidence that contradicts preexisting beliefs, according to Cristine Legare, associate professor of psychology at UT, in the online course, “How do we become intellectually humble?” In other words, it is open-mindedness.

In Yan’s view, overcoming fear of failure and developing intellectual humility requires a change in mindset. When students hit a wall, they can tell themselves they have reached their limits. Alternatively, they can shift their mindset, recognize the wall as an opportunity to learn something new, and push through.

UT has recently undertaken an initiative to redesign curricula across departments. According to Josh Walker, associate director of the Faculty Innovation Center, UT is moving from a teaching-centered model in the classroom to a student-centered model of experiential learning. The objective is to give students the opportunity to learn by doing.

“You may have heard this adage: Rather than the sage on the stage, professors should be the guide on the side,” Walker said. “A necessary ingredient for that to happen is intellectual humility, I would say even among the faculty as well as the students.”

As UT moves toward experiential learning, professors must revise teaching methods they have used for years, while students reciprocally adjust to new forms of learning, Walker said.

“A basic tenant for experiential learning is the ability to fail in a low-stakes way without punishment,” said Hillary Hart, director of the Faculty Innovation Center.

For example, the first time a student experiences failure shouldn’t be out in the real world. Not only is that painful, it can also cost jobs, Hart said.

Walker said that students must be built up step-by-step from guided practice, with structured elements, to independent practice with less structure, slowly moving from low-stakes environments such as classroom activities to high-stakes situations such as exams. In a similar vein, Yan recommended presenting learning as a discovery process. Research and science are failure-based, since they are often developed through trial and error, but they are not presented in the classroom that way.

“The way we talk about science in the class is we present it as if it were all a done deal,” Yan said. “More of the focus on the process of science and telling people why we know the things we do and how we go about finding out the answers to questions that we don’t, that could go a long way towards intellectual humility as well as designing classrooms where challenge and struggle is celebrated.”