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See Inside March / April 2010

The Pluses of Getting It Wrong

New research makes the case for difficult tests in schools and suggests an unusual technique that anyone can use to learn

For years many educators have championed “errorless learning,” advising teachers (and students) to create study conditions that do not permit errors. For example, a classroom teacher might drill students repeatedly on the same multiplication problem, with very little delay between the first and second presentations of the problem, ensuring that the student gets the answer correct each time.

The idea is that students who make errors will remember the mistakes and will not learn the correct information (or will learn it more slowly, if at all). Recent research shows that this worry is misplaced. Pupils actually learn better if conditions are arranged so that they have to make errors. Specifically, people remember things better and longer if they are given tests so challenging that they are bound to fail. This phenomenon has obvious applications for education, but the technique could be useful for anyone who is trying to absorb new material of any kind.

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