Do People Learn Better from Success or Failure?

Do People Learn Better from Success or Failure?
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Success or Failure as Learning Aids?
Our society has often touted failure as a more powerful and effective way to learn than success. Generally, we accept that we can learn from our stumbles. Sure, mistakes can be teachable moments. But are they, in the end, the more effective way to learn? The question is do we learn better from success or failure?

The Research
A study published in 2019 in Psychological Science by Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach found that, instead of aiding learning, failure undermined it.

Participants were given a series of questions. One group was told what they answered correctly (success feedback) and another was told what they answered incorrectly (failure feedback). On a follow-up test, the group that received success feedback performed significantly better than the group with failure feedback. In fact, they got 62% of the answers correct as opposed to 48% of those with negative feedback. The results were corroborated across linguistic, social, and professional domains.

The Role of Ego
It seems that failure threatens the ego and causes learners to tune out and stop processing information.  Interestingly, however, participants learned equally when the success or failure belonged to someone else. The conclusion? When one’s ego is not threatened, we can learn from failure. Otherwise, personal success is the better teacher.

Three Implications for Learning in a Work Environment
What do these results mean as we provide project post mortems and training and development for employees in the workplace?

  1. Emphasize Success
    Rather than instructional design that only points out what employees have gotten wrong, whenever possible focus on the positive. It simply makes for better learning.
  2. Depersonalize Failure
    One of the fastest ways to shut down a learner is to point out what they misunderstood. Egos can be easily bruised, especially in a group of coworkers. If the ego suffers, learning suffers. Whenever possible, debrief third-party failure and use simulations to create a safe learning environments and to create emotional distance from the failure.
  3. Balance Learning Zones
    While it is important to keep the atmosphere upbeat and positive, it is also important to challenge learners by creating enough healthy stress to break them out of their learning comfort zones. Focus on the attitude that learning is the goal, and that it occurs at different paces for different learners.

The Bottom Line
While it is critical to define and expose success and failure in a high-performance culture, the way you handle failure in a learning environment can impact skill building.  A continuous learning environment will be significantly enhanced when you emphasize success, depersonalize failure, and balance learning zones.

To learn more about how to improve corporate learning, download The ABC’s to Better Instructional Design

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