Almost Right: How Barely Missing An Answer Reinforces Learning While Studying

TORONTO — You can learn without making mistakes — but you learn best when you err slightly. That’s the conclusion of a newly-published study, which finds that trial and error can actually help reinforce the right answer while studying.

Researchers at Baycrest, a leading brain research non-profit in Canada, recently recruited 32 English-speaking young adults to participate in a language-learning exercise. Participants, none of whom spoke Spanish, were tasked with guessing the English definition of Spanish words they were presented. Most terms shown were either close cognates (e.g., “careera,” which means degree), or false cognates (e.g., “carpeta,” which means “folder,” not “carpet.”)

Man reading a book
You can learn without making mistakes — but you learn best when you err slightly. That’s the conclusion of a newly-published study, which finds that trial and error can actually help reinforce the right answer while studying.

In all, participants were asked to guess the correct translation to 16 words, with which they were provided after each attempt. Retention was challenged during a subsequent round, in which all 16 words were tested again. Unsurprisingly, the close cognates were guessed with the greatest accuracy. More surprising was the fact that getting an answer almost right made it much easier to get it right the second go-around.

Our research found evidence that mistakes that are a ‘near miss’ can help a person learn the information better than if no errors were made at all,” explains Dr. Nicole Anderson, the study’s senior author, in a statement. “These types of errors can serve as stepping stones to remembering the right answer. But if the error made is a wild guess and out in left field, then a person does not learn the correct information as easily.”

This finding adds a new wrinkle to what we’re traditionally taught, and makes sense, considering the vacuity of coming to a right answer by chance. “Close” answers, by contrast, take some effort to achieve.

“Based on these findings, someone studying for an exam should only take practice quizzes after reviewing the material,” suggests Dr. Anderson. “If a person takes a practice test and is unfamiliar with the content, they risk making guesses that are nowhere near the right answer. This could make it harder for them to learn the correct information later.”

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In other words, a stab in the dark is not just some harmless decision; it aids in forming bad learning habits.

Anderson’s team is currently studying the brain activity of learners who either provide “near miss” or “out of left field” responses, hoping to understand how each response affects an individual’s ability to later retrieve the right answer.

The researchers published their findings April 16, 2018 in the journal Memory.

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