Wednesday / April 24

Do Students Really Learn from Failures?

We often say that we learn from our failures. But neuroscience does not completely agree. The reality is that humans are more likely to learn from mistakes if they have experienced a sufficient amount of success.

The brain produces motivation by the secretion of dopamine in the nucleus accumbent (also known as the reward pathway). For example, when a student gets an answer correct, dopamine is released to motivate the desire to get more answers correct in the future. Once a brain has established a pattern of success, it is strong enough to overcome occasional failures and setbacks. The experience of repeated success develops a strong drive to push through the occasional set back to receive the dopamine reinforcer.

Success is even important to maximize the motivation of students who have experienced academic accomplishments. Research conducted by Wolfram Schultz found that elite athletes’ brains require success to develop good training habits. Using fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, athletes were shown video recordings of themselves being victorious or experiencing defeat. The athletes who saw themselves being victorious experienced activation of dopamine motivating them to train harder. Those who saw themselves failing actually experienced activation in a region of the brain associated with the loss of motivation and did not train as hard. This study demonstrates that even highly motivated individuals still require ongoing success to persevere.

How the brain produces motivation is especially important for students who struggle. A pattern of failure produces a lack of motivation. Even when the students experience some success, their motivation is fragile, meaning one setback can be enough to stop them from trying again. Teachers have often experienced struggling students giving up due to a minor setback. The typical scenario includes a student having some initial success; the teacher encourages and praises the student, believing he has turned the corner. Then the student has one failed test or even one wrong response in class that results in the student giving up and not wanting to try again. This is why cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson said, “Success and failure shape us more powerfully than genetics and drugs (Robertson 2012).”

So why are some students more than others easily motivated or defeated? A student’s temperament plays an important role in motivation. Temperament can be defined as how capable an individual is to adapt to new situations and bounce back from life’s difficulties. Students with easy temperaments seem more able to bounce back from setbacks and can maintain a positive outlook during challenging times. Students with difficult or anxious temperaments tend not to bounce back from setbacks as quickly and are inclined to view challenging situations pessimistically. Because there is a range of student temperaments, it is helpful when teachers can be sensitive to the fact that some pupils’ motivation levels are impacted by their neurobiological makeup, resulting in the student being less motivated due to a history of school failure or losing motivation quickly with just a few setbacks.

In order to build students’ motivation, I recommend trying these approaches:

  • Each year teachers should attempt to establish a classroom culture in which all students believe that they can be successful. This message must be repeated with regularity and reinforced by the teacher’s actions.
  • Utilize formative assessment to help determine how well students are comprehending and retaining information, and then test when there is an expectation of success. In addition, consider giving two test scores: the traditional grade and a score which indicates the rate of improvement. This action allows teachers to focus on effort and improvement rather than just traditional grades.
  • Reframe wrong answers by avoiding using the traditional x mark and the color red, which students who have persistently failed tend to have a negative reaction to. Establish a mindset where students view wrong answers as opportunities for future progress.
  • Consider giving diverse types of tests not just written: oral, picture identification, demonstration of gestures taught during lessons. These creative forms of assessment allow students who learn and retain differently to demonstrate their strengths and be more successful.

Written by

Horacio Sanchez is the President and CEO of Resiliency Inc., an agency leader in helping schools improve school climate, instruction, and discipline. He is recognized as one of the nation’s prominent experts on promoting student resiliency and applying brain-science to improve school outcomes. The Maladaptive Council recognizes him as a leading authority on emotional disorders and resiliency. He is a highly sought after speaker and has keynoted many regional and national conferences. He has been a teacher, administrator, mental health director, and consultant to the Department of Education in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and other states. His diverse education and background has helped him to merge research, science, and practice. He has authored several articles and books on the topics of resiliency, closing the achievement gap, and applying neuroscience to improve educational practices and outcomes. Horacio is the author of The Education Revolution.

Latest comments

  • Resiliency is a part of growing up and learning new things. Just think of all the things that little babies do as they grow up like learning to sit up and walk. What if they didn’t have that spirit to keep trying! We need to keep that spirit alive through their primary years so they have that grit when new things get a little challenging. Picture books, like Growing Smarter, have the theme of perseverance and effort. Let’s read stories like that one to our little ones to foster resiliency at an early age.

    • Resiliency is a product of acquiring protective factors that allow you to bounce back. For most children, some failure and challenge are critical in age appropriate amounts to develop resiliency and grit. However, every resiliency study found that children must have acquired enough protective factors to overcome challenges. Resiliency research identifies difficult and shy/anxious temperaments as early indicators of being at risk for life-failure. If children at-risk for life-failure aren’t born to parents that can provide the support to develop the protective factors needed they can begin to suffer from reward deficit syndrome, the inability of the brain to produce the chemical reinforcement that we need to develop good habits. It is these students that often experience a pattern of failure and don’t have the make-up to bounce back – they tend to give up. Without the sequence of success that enabled motivation until they can begin to gain good habits and determination they give up. Research indicates that under the right sequence of repeated failures, everyone loses motivation and at those times require some assistance until they are strong enough stand and fight.

  • Goal setting based on individuals’ relative capacities, then measuring success through change quotient vs an arbitrary general standard is a proven method for adults in a business setting. It is at the core of well implemented performance review processes, mentoring and professional development. Educators would do well to apply these same principles.

    • Education is fighting visual patterns that are difficult to change. Outside of parenting, the only model we see consistently is education. It sets a pattern for teachers, teach how you were taught. It makes films is our brains, mirror neurons, that subconsciously play when we enter a school setting. We subconsciously accept grade based evaluation, As, Bs, & Cs. It filters over to teacher evaluation as well. It is common that business moves faster than education.

    • PS. I spoke with some math teachers at Lodi Unified a month ago about utilizing a change quotient model to accompany the traditional grading system. They were very excited, will keep you posted on their progress the next time I return.

  • Once again, Horacio Sanchez hit the nail on the head. Great post with valuable information for all educators. Especially important for those who are teaching students with special needs.
    Keep up the great work, Horacio!

    • The lack of dopamine reinforcement due to persistent school failure is like the reason many special needs students are viewed as unmotivated.

  • Horacio enjoyed your post. Students need to develop SEL skills (Social Emotional Learning ) to internalize positive outcomes by being positively motivated.
    Please continue to enlighten educators on the significance of this training and how important it is to incorporate these skills daily.

    • When it comes to social emotional learning, teaching skills is where it’s at.

  • Thank you Horacio Sanchez for another enlightening look at motivation and the need for building resilience through success, as well as failure.

    • Yes, resiliency is not a feel good concept, it is the concrete building of protective factors.

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