Failing 15% of time makes you learn

10:11 PM Nov 12, 2019 |

New Delhi: Learning goes best when people fail 15% of the time, according to a new study. Educators and educational scholars have long recognized that there is something of a “sweet spot” when it comes to learning.

When a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new; likewise, we don’t enhance our knowledge when a challenge is so difficult that we fail entirely or give up.


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“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 have put that on a mathematical footing,” says lead author of the study, Robert Wilson. The researchers came up with the so-called “85% Rule” after conducting a series of machine-learning experiments in which they taught computers simple tasks, such as classifying different patterns into one of two categories or classifying photographs of handwritten digits as odd versus even numbers, or low versus high numbers.

The computers learned fastest in situations in which the difficulty was such that they responded with 85% accuracy. “If you have an error rate of 15% or accuracy of 85%, you are always maximizing your rate of learning in these two-choice tasks,” Wilson says. When researchers looked at previous studies of animal learning, they found that the 85% Rule held true in those instances as well, Wilson says.

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