If We Want to Maximize Learning, is It Better to Focus on Our Failures? Or Our Successes?

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Whether it’s an audition, a math final, or your herculean efforts to prepare a non-dried-out Thanksgiving turkey for once, it’s never fun to fail, make mistakes, or fall short of your goals. Which probably explains why there are so many quotes on the internet about the value of learning from our failures, and embracing setbacks. Like…

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

And even a few cautionary quotes to make sure we don’t let success get to our heads. Like…

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

-Bill Gates

And sure, I suppose mistakes are inevitable. And that the way we interpret and respond to mistakes is an essential aspect of effective practice and learning (as in this basketball study). Because mistakes do indeed provide great “teachable moments,” where we can swoop in, clarify what went wrong, and figure out how to get a different result the next time. For instance, when my kids bring home a subpar grade from school, it feels like a perfect opportunity to pause for a moment to talk about what happened and why, clarify what we’re aiming for, and brainstorm what adjustments might get them closer the next time.

But focusing relentlessly on our biggest slip-ups and the things we are doing least well can be kind of a bummer. And though I know dogs and people are not the same, our dog DJ seems to learn way better from his successes than his failures.

So…assuming there might be something to this for humans as well, which is it? Do we learn better from our failures? Or from our successes?

Most accurate vs. least accurate

Like most things in life, I think the answer is “both” and “it depends.” And it even appears that cultural differences may even play a role. But when it comes to learning how to play our instruments better, serving a volleyball, or becoming the campus cornhole champ, there is mounting evidence which suggests that focusing exclusively on our big misses and epic fails may not be as helpful as originally thought.

A team of researchers (Saemi et al., 2011) took 28 kids from an elementary school, and had them practice throwing beanbags at a target on the ground. And to make things a little trickier, made them do so with their non-dominant arm. The target was about 10 feet away, and 8 inches across. Around the target were a series of concentric circles – like a bullseye – to help measure the accuracy of their throws. If the beanbag landed on the target, they got 100 points, but if it landed in any of the other zones, they’d get fewer points. Kind of like playing darts. But with beanbags. And the dartboard drawn on the ground. Umm…so maybe not really like darts at all.

Anyhow, each student got 60 total practice throws, divided up into 10 blocks of 6 throws each. And because it’s pretty obvious how successful your throw is if you can see where it lands, they were blindfolded to keep them in the dark about how well they were doing on each throw. But after each batch of 6 throws, they received feedback about their performance, consisting of the throw #, their score (0-100), and info about where the beanbag landed relative to the target (Short? Long? Off to the right? To the left?).

However, one group of students received feedback about their 3 most accurate throws in the batch, while another group of students received feedback about their 3 biggest misses.

How much learning stuck?

24 hours later, the students came back for a test to see how much of what they learned the previous day had stuck.

Nothing complicated. Just 10 blind throws. Only this time with no feedback.

As you can see in the graph below, the group receiving feedback about their successes generally outperformed their counterparts. And it was no different in the test, as the students who had received feedback about their best throws throughout practice significantly outperformed the students who had received feedback about their worst throws.



Perceived competence and motivation

So what is it about receiving feedback about successes that seems to lead to enhanced learning?

Well, we all like feeling competent (which is associated with better learning1). And feeling like we’re good at something tends to increase our motivation (which also seems to be related to enhanced learning2). So hmm…maybe my son is actually onto something when he tells me that harping on his mistakes doesn’t make him feel like learning…?

Anyhow, going back to the study, the researchers had the students take a quick intrinsic motivation assessment after their practice session to see if motivation and perceived competence might indeed be part of the equation.

Lo and behold, the students receiving feedback about their best throws had significantly higher perceived competence scores, suggesting that they felt much more capable than their counterparts.

And wouldn’t you know it, their intrinsic motivation scores were higher too.

The implication being, that the feedback we give students doesn’t just have an informational element, but a motivational component as well – both of which have an impact on how effectively they learn.

Take action

While I don’t think the study’s results suggest that we should completely ignore big mistakes, it does seem clear that focusing exclusively on our students’ (or our own) biggest mistakes is not the best way to maximize learning. Nor confidence, or motivation for that matter.

Instead, focusing on their most successful attempts, and the things they are doing right, could lead to greater improvements that actually stick.

In case you were wondering if this was something that only works with kids, you may be glad to learn that similar studies have been done with young adults (early 20’s), and older adults (late 60’s), and found the same boost in learning. So this is a general finding that musicians of all ages can probably benefit from.

And in one last interesting twist, this study found that the enhanced learning effect is even greater when the student knows in advance that they will be getting feedback after their best attempts.

So next time you are teaching a lesson, try switch your focus for a moment and keep an eye out for the attempts that come closest to the goal, rather than the biggest goofs.

And when you go into the practice room to do a little practicing yourself, listen for the times when you get things right. What exactly did you do? How can you do it again? What could you tweak to make it even better next time?


Saemi, E., Wulf, G., Varzaneh, A. G., & Zarghami, M. (2011). “Feedback” após boas versus más tentativas melhora a aprendizagem motora em crianças. Revista Brasileira de Educação Física e Esporte, 25(4), 673–681. https://doi.org/10.1590/s1807-55092011000400011

NOTE: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on 8.23.2015


  1. Social-comparative feedback affects motor skill learning
  2. Feedback after good trials enhances learning

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14 Responses

  1. I think people have avoided feedback on success because we’ve mistakenly assumed there’s nothing there to say. It’s just empty praise. “You did great, kid! …yeah! On to the next thing!” We’re so trained to focus on failure we often aren’t prepared to deal with success.

    Also, the failure feedback is likely to have psychologically damning consequences. Like, “There are still flaws in my skill because I’m still being lectured about them.” Especially the more of it you hear, and the more often, the more likely you’re going to think this is impossible. One reason is that obviously it’s disappointing, and another is that you get used to it to the point that you basically tune it out – even on the level where you ignore it being a problem altogether. So then you’re not inclined to fix it.

    1. Maybe some of the “just empty praise” is just that….. we’ve all heard that gushing enthusiasm and both kids and adults can spot insincerity a mile off. If praise is specific and targeted – that particular throw/note/question was praise worthy – and criticism is equally aimed at the task/behaviour then success/failure would be less linked to personal success/failure. Your behaviour was good/bad – you are not a good/bad person. In addition, specific criticism should always include possible routes for improvement. FWIW.

  2. It would be interesting to see it repeated with a third group who get feedback on all 6 of their throws, which is probably more representative of the way most people teach.

  3. I think I’ll have to have this tattooed somewhere.
    Perhaps because of the way I was raised, I’m ruthlessly self-critical and find it nearly impossible to give myself any huzzahs (except when I do Triumphant Guy Things, like felling a tree with a handsaw.) If I’m not mindful, a tendency toward negative feedback seeps into my teaching–disheartening as well as (apparently) useless.

  4. I had the opportunity to watch an All State band rehearsal conducted by John Paynter of Northwestern University – and he used a terrific phrase at the end of rehearsal that speaks to your point. “… great job kids… but we can do better!”

  5. One thing I’d like to add to this: as a music instructor for private lessons for ages 12 to my oldest student at age 86 (that’s not a typo!), I’d like us to not forget that we live in a time when everyone is deluged with information to process and with activities to fill up most of our waking hours. The urge to excel is, for many, almost overwhelming. Temper your constructive criticism with plenty of praise. Praise is the one thing that most children and adults hear the least of in any given day. More criticism than praise can wear down a person’s desire to achieve greater levels of skill mastery in any field. Even if the praise is something lighthearted that brings a smile or a laugh to a student, it can make the difference between them ending a lesson with the desire to achieve even more, or the desire to cry in the car on the way home.

  6. As a student, being encouraged and criticized have been the two main components of my learning processes in music, sports, and academics. Currently, my volleyball team is having a hard time accepting some of the constructive criticism given by our head coach, because although it is crucial and very necessary, it squeezes any possible glimpse of hope for future success. Being constantly reminded of failures and plays that need to be made, builds up pressure and despair that catch up with the way we play our game, recently resulting in a loss. Personally, I welcome constructive criticism as a tool to hone my techniques in all facets of any learning experience, because that is the way that I was raised. Now, just because others take offense to criticism, doesn’t in any way mean that one must praise every action taken, but rather one should emphasize each success produced. When I correctly hit a middle ball over the net, the coaching staff will make sure to tell me why I succeeded and how I can become even better the next time! A prominent coaching figure in my life has been Thomas Hughes, an All American Track star who has been coaching in athletics for 25 years, producing 19 All Americans, and who has also counseled in a prison for 21 years(http://www.vaportrail247.com/ ). Because he was a prison counselor, he has become even more adept in understanding how to communicate with the various kinds of people he encounters in his profession. Coach Hughes trains my sister and me in jumping for different track events, using a trial and error method. First he tells us what to do, allowing us to complete the task in the way we think that it should be done. Then, after we have done it our way, he explains what we were doing right, and what we need to fix in order to do it correctly the next time. After being corrected we take a crack at it again, and “BAM” we are on our way to stardom!
    In the long run, coaching techniques appear conditional and sensitive to those that they are being applied to. One may use failure based strategies to strengthen a player or student who thrives off of constructive criticism, while another might try and maintain a more optimistic, more upbeat success oriented form of teaching to appeal to other kinds of people. Coaching has yet to be mastered, so as a student I say, “Teachers, please don’t give up on reaching out to us because no matter what your teaching approach is, we need you!”

  7. When you think about it, it seems so obvious. Why would we want to do some three think we are bad at doing?!! No fun in that.
    I became a flutist, I think, because I liked being really good at something and getting positive reactions from doing it! I like music but I don’t think I would have continued if my teachers had said a lot of negative things. I had/ have a very “thin skin” for negative feedback!

  8. Posing the question as an either/or is really a false dichotomy.
    You must do both.
    Successes gives you the motivation to keep going through the lean times. Strive to understand your successes so you can repeat them.
    Failures keep you on your toes, remind you where you need to improve. Strive to understand your failures so in future you can turn similar situations into successes.
    Personally, I don’t think in terms of “success” or “failure;” those words are too emotionally loaded for me. Too judgmental, too personal, all tied up with your self-worth, and so on.
    I think more, “That worked,” or “That didn’t work.” depending on whether it produced the effect I wanted. Then I adjust accordingly.

  9. Reminds me of the clicker conversation you had — and that the teacher clicks when you get it RIGHT, not when you get it wrong.

  10. My teacher in graduate school only focused on the negative and never told me what I was doing right. I found that extremely frustrating because I didn’t know what he wanted me to keep doing!

  11. It really depends on the context. In all situations, I will start with something positive. I’ve been a voice teacher for many years. If it’s in a voice lesson, I give praise in a very specific way, such as “I liked how you were able to decrescendo on that pitch and also keep an even vibrato” I also often ask students how did the feel a passage or a song went. Their response can really help me know their understanding of what we are working on, and how they are able or unable to hear.
    If a student is preparing for a competition, we focus more on what needs to be improved, but I don’t use negative words. I try very hard to be specific about what and how to change something to improve the sound. I also ask the student what they think they need to change. I have been taught a lot by my students.

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