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Learning, Reward, and Failure

Posted Oct 18 2010 8:16pm
When a person sets out to learn something, there's an important emotional issue affecting their ability to learn
Which is stronger: The desire for success--or the fear of failure?

When I set out to learn something, I am essentially giving myself a series of periodic tests. Let's say I am trying to memorize a poem. I read the first line, look up from the page, and say the line without looking. I look back at the page; did I say the line correctly? If so, I've passed the test. If not, I look to see where my attempt and the poem differs, identify my mistake, and correct myself.

Learning is made up of many small tests and many small mistakes; as we continue making attempts, we gradually eliminate the paths we don't want to take until we come up with only the correct path--in my case, the fully memorized poem. We are "learning a thousand ways not to build a light bulb," narrowing down our approach to discover the way that works.

The brain's reward system is intimately involved in learning. We're motivated to learn because it is pleasurable to pass the many tiny tests we set ourselves. I feel happy when I see an equation fall into place; I feel proud to have successfully navigated a small-talk conversation with the woman at the coffee counter. When my littlest sister puzzled out her first few words, she even laughed out loud at the joy of having decoded their meanings. That happiness may be most evident in young children, but is only because we grown-ups have become too prim and proper to express our excitement!

Yet there's a dark side to this emotional aspect of learning--the fear of failure. It's a logical fear; if I fail at working the problem, I may not learn it in time for the midterm. If I botch the conversation, the coffee-counter lady might be offended or confused. And my little sister, if she failed at reading that sentence, would not gain the information in the sentence--or the gleeful praise of her mother and older siblings. Failure has a powerful negative emotional effect. It's meant to motivate us to find the reason for the failure--the switched negative sign, the misused conversational script, or the mispronounced letter. Most of the time, we find and correct the error, and we use that failure to aid our learning.

We're motivated to avoid unpleasant experiences, such as the negative emotions we feel when we fail. When we fail during learning, there are two possible responses to failure: First, we could find the reason for the failure and re-design our approach, eventually avoiding failure. Or, second, we could simply avoid trying the thing that led to the failure--but thereby also forfeit any chance of success.

Why would we do this? Well, usually, we don't. The pleasure of a successful attempt leads us, for the most part, to evaluate and learn from the small failures we make during the learning process; we're able to look ahead and see a point where we will be successfully performing the task, so that the failures have very little negative impact. The desire for success heavily outweighs our displeasure at failure.

But what happens when this process gets stuck somewhere in the middle--after the failure, but before the success? There are many reasons this could happen. Maybe the failure has been identified as a failure, but the mistake that led to it cannot be found. Maybe the prospect of success is not particularly tantalizing because the skill is not desirable to the person trying to learn it. Maybe failure has become such a negative thing that even a highly desirable success is judged to be "not worth the risk". However it starts, the person who finds that his desire to succeed does not outweigh his fear of failure logically makes the choice not to try.

In the long run, the fear of failure can become so overwhelming that even the thought of learning evokes those same emotions associated with failure: Shame, fear, and despair. Without the ability to use failure to one's benefit, learning itself can become a painful thing because it has become so closely associated with those negative emotions. This is very commonly seen in people who have learning disabilities, especially in my generation and older, because in many cases they were told they were not "trying hard enough" and forced to continue to try to learn despite their inability to identify the sources of their mistakes and correct themselves. With their every failure pointed out and castigated, these students soon became unable to take pleasure in learning.

Autistic students' distaste for unpredictable events can make them very vulnerable to this phenomenon: Failure is not predictable, making it more unpleasant than it would be for the typical student. And for someone who has difficulty switching approaches to a problem, it can also be particularly hard to modify one's approach when analyzing and responding to failure. Many autistics are notorious perfectionists because it is so painful for them to fail. Even worse, many therapies aimed at autistic people make use of repeated pointing out of failures in order to teach skills whose purposes may not be explained (and which are thus are not particularly desirable to the student).

Such autistic students, given undesirable skills to learn, harshly criticized for their mistakes, and unable to easily modify their approach to the problem, naturally begin to avoid trying to learn when risk of failure is involved. And yet the potential for learning is often immense because, when an autistic person successfully learns something, the emotional response to success tends to be even greater than it is for a typical person--leading to encyclopedic knowledge of narrow fields of special interest, where these students know they can successfully learn and are undaunted by the constant small failures we make while learning.

Unfortunately, I don't have a solution for this problem; it's something I struggle with every day. My homework is extensive, detailed, extremely organized--and takes twice the time it takes any other student. On tests, I lose as much time double- and triple-checking as I do reeling my mind in from daydreams. And at times, learning becomes so unpleasant that I sit down to do homework and immediately begin crying.

In the case where fear of failure inhibits learning, it may be helpful to refocus the goal--not on success, but on completion. It feels like giving up; but it can be the only way to break out of this kind of freeze. It can also be helpful to start with something that feels manageable, such as reading the chapter or doing the easiest problem--or, for that matter, even just setting out supplies for doing the work. Breaking up work into smaller segments makes each segment less daunting because it allows the creation of a mental plan, reducing uncertainty and unpredictability. In some cases, knowing why you need the skill can allow you to begin to learn it.

It's not the prevention of failure that makes you a good student; it's the ability to use failure to learn more about success. In general, a beneficial strategy is one that reduces the impact of failure, increases the intrinsic desirability of success, or makes it easier to gain useful information from failures. Beware external rewards; the prospect of losing a reward can make failure even more frightening, and can more than cancel out the desirability of success. Beware simply "trying harder"; more effort does not mean better learning if one is unable to progressively build on the repeated attempts. And beware giving feedback on failed attempts without also giving information on how those preliminary efforts could be modified to be more effective.

As I've been writing this post, my linear systems homework is staring at me accusingly from across the room. Attempts at using Laplace transforms have been so far hit-or-miss; and I'm having trouble finding where I've gone wrong. But things are looking up; with a handy table and a rough procedure for using the slippery little equations, I may be able to master them in time for tomorrow's test. godaddy web stats
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