To Learn Best, Psychologists Say You Need To Fail 15% Of The Time

To Learn Best, Psychologists Say You Need To Fail 15% Of The Time

Among some writers, it’s common practice to celebrate rejections, like when editors reject your story pitches or when your book proposal gets turned down for the millionth time. I’m sure this is also the case for people in other professions, and even if it’s not common practice, it’s at least common advice: Getting a bunch of rejections is part of the job. It means you’re being active and putting yourself out there. You’re doing The Thing. 

It’s good wisdom for when you’re learning a new skill, too. Most people don’t wake up, decide they want to learn to play basketball, and then find themselves hitting all their free throws by that night. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the trials and tribulations of first-time plant parenthood: Although you might spend the first year or so frantically trying to resuscitate a yellowing philodendron and mourning every fallen leaf, you eventually start to learn the ropes.

There’s a science to all this trial and error, new research tells us. Specifically, a team of psychologists call it “the 85% rule.” The rule states that the best learning happens when you’re only getting it right 85% of the time. In other words, you’re learning the fastest when you’re failing 15% of the time.

“These ideas that were out there in the education field—that there is this ‘zone of proximal difficulty,’ in which you ought to be maximizing your learning—we’ve put that on a mathematical footing,” Robert Wilson, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist with the University of Arizona and lead author of the study, said in a news release.

To come up with the numbers, Wilson and his fellow researchers experimented with how quickly a computer can learn simple tasks like categorizing patterns or classifying handwritten numbers as even or odd. When the researchers played with the difficulty settings on the tasks, they found the computers learned the fastest when the difficulty was set to the point where they were only getting the problems right with 85% accuracy.

Now, Wilson clarified that he doesn’t necessarily think that means students should aim for B’s in the classroom. But there might be some lessons for students and educators: “If you are taking classes that are too easy and acing them all the time, then you probably aren’t getting as much out of a class as someone who’s struggling but managing to keep up,” he said. 

Consider instead a job setting where you need to learn a new task. Wilson gave the example of a budding radiologist who needs to learn how to figure out whether or not there’s a tumor in a given X-ray image.

“You get better at figuring out there’s a tumor in an image over time, and you need experience and you need examples to get better,” Wilson explained. “I can imagine giving easy examples and giving difficult examples and giving intermediate examples. If I give really easy examples, you get 100% right all the time, and there’s nothing left to learn. If I give really hard examples, you’ll be 50% correct and still not learning anything new, whereas if I give you something in between, you can be at this sweet spot where you are getting the most information from each particular example.”

So if you’re learning something new, don’t be afraid of getting it wrong every now and then! (Though, of course, you might want to keep the stakes lower than trying to diagnose a tumor.) And just to be clear, most writers probably get rejected or ignored way more than 15% of the time (don’t ask us about it…), but the point still stands: Get yourself out there! Failure is part of the journey.

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