There have been a few studies of late on how a person’s reaction to mistakes, and subsequent feedback about the mistakes, affect the learning process. The findings might interest you, especially if you are a parent with school-aged children.
One recent study focused on why some people are good at learning from their mistakes while others are not. The researchers found that the reaction to the mistakes is what makes the difference. Using EEG technology to measure brain waves, they identified two opposing reactions to mistakes. They noted that people who showed brain activity that meant they were paying attention to the mistake were more likely to learn from it and correct it in the future, whereas those who ignored the mistake and moved on were more likely to continue making mistakes.
Next, the researchers looked at how a person’s beliefs about learning contributed to these differing reactions to mistakes. They incorporated the seminal mindset research of Carol Dweck, which divides people into two groups: those who believe your intelligence level is innate and can’t be greatly changed (“fixed mindset”), and those who believe that with time and energy, people can get better at almost anything (“growth mindset”). As you might expect, people with a fixed mindset were less likely to learn from mistakes (since they viewed them as failure), while people with a growth mindset viewed mistakes as part of the learning process.
In earlier studies that dovetail nicely with these findings, Dweck found that after students completed a task, she could manipulate their future choices–in telling ways–simply by varying the type of praise she gave them.
Telling students that they were really smart had a markedly different effect than telling students they must have worked hard on the task. Indeed, those who were told they were smart chose easier subsequent tests, while those praised for effort chose more challenging tests. Dweck surmised that the kids who were told they were smart didn’t want to take the risk of making a mistake, lest they be seen as not so smart.
In later experiments, she found that students praised for effort worked harder at more challenging tasks, while the ones who were told they were smart got discouraged. Post-task, the “effort” kids preferred to look at the tests of people who had done better than them, presumably to learn where they had gone wrong and to gain insight from higher achievers. On the other hand, the “smart” kids preferred to compare their test results to people with lower scores than them, to boost their self-esteem. Ironically, telling a student he or she was “smart” inhibited the learning process.