Tough love isn’t the way to go when it comes to helping kids to do well in school.
Children perform better academically if they’re told education is difficult and that failure is a normal part of learning something new, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
The study, conducted by the University of Poitiers in France, found children feel more confident and less stressed when they are encouraged to learn from their mistakes, instead of being pressured to succeed at all costs.
"We focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority," said lead researcher Frederique Autin. "By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. 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."
The study, published online in APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, involved 111 French sixth graders, who were given very difficult anagram problems that none could solve. Then the students were divided into two groups and a researcher talked to them about the problems.
One group was told school is difficult and that failure is an important building block of learning something new. Children in a second group were asked how they tried to solve the problems. The students then took a test that measures working memory capacity, a key gauge of learning.
Researchers found the students who were told that learning is difficult performed significantly better on the working memory test, especially on more difficult problems, than the students who were not similarly encouraged.
Two follow-up experiments involving nearly 200 other sixth graders found similar results on reading comprehension.
"Our research suggests that students will benefit from education that gives them room to struggle with difficulty," researchers 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."