MONDAY, March 19, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- If at first you don't succeed, try, try again, goes the truism.
A new study by French researchers found that children who were told learning can be difficult, and that failing is a natural part of the learning process, actually performed better on tests than kids not given such reassurances.
"We focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority," said Frederique Autin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Poitiers, in an American Psychological Association news release. "By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material."
Instead, acknowledging that difficulty is an important part of growing intellectually and mastering new skills could "stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning," Autin added.
The researchers conducted several experiments involving sixth graders who were asked to solve various problems.
In one experiment, students were divided into two groups and asked to solve word problems that were too difficult for them to solve. The first group was told that learning can be difficult, that it requires practice and that failure is common. The other group was asked only how they tried to solve the problems.
Both groups then took a test that measures working memory capacity, a good predictor of academic achievement. The researchers found the students who were told learning is difficult performed much better on the memory test than the other students.
In another experiment, 68 students were given a reading-comprehension test and questioned about their academic abilities. The group that was told learning is difficult not only performed better on the test, but also reported feeling more confident.
The findings were published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
"People usually believe that academic achievement simply reflects students' inherent academic ability, which can be difficult to change," said Jean-Claude Croizet, a psychology professor at the University of Poitiers, who supervised the research based on Autin's doctoral dissertation. "But teachers and parents may be able to help students succeed just by changing the way in which the material is presented."
Researchers advised parents and teachers to focus on children's progress, rather than grades and test scores.
"Our research suggests that students will benefit from education that gives them room to struggle with difficulty," said Autin. "Learning takes time and each step in the process should be rewarded, especially at early stages when students most likely will experience failure."
The U.S. Department of Education provides tools for academic success among children.