In Brief

People perform a skill better when they are allowed to make mistakes during training, reports a study in June's Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 3). The study claims that people become comfortable with mistakes and see the learning potential behind them, creating unflappable trainees who later remain focused when performing tasks on the job.

Study authors Nina Keith, PhD, and Michael Frese, PhD, of Germany's Justus-Liebig University, investigated whether self-regulation processes--that is, control of one's emotions and cognition--could explain why error-management training, in which teachers explicitly encourage students to make and learn from mistakes, leads to better performance than traditional training methods that quash errors. Typically, these avoidant training methods give step-by-step advice to solve specific problems, much like an instructional manual does.

In the study, 55 Justus-Liebig undergraduates learned to create slides using PowerPoint.

Researchers randomly assigned students to three conditions (error-avoidant training, error-management training and error-management training supplemented with problem analysis) and, during a training phase, gave participants printed slides of patterns that they attempted to replicate on screen. Students in the error-avoidant condition received detailed written instructions on how to replicate the specific slide. Those in the error-management condition received instructions that merely encouraged them to make, and learn from, errors. Participants in the final condition received the same instructions as the error- management condition, but researchers also instructed them to develop strategic solutions by answering aloud self-posed analytic questions such as "What do I know about the program so far that can be useful now?"

All three groups then replicated three additional and more challenging slides, which required adapting the skills they had learned during training to tougher assignments. The researchers discovered that students in both error-management training conditions outperformed error-avoidant training students at the more challenging PowerPoint task. Also, the error-management groups reported feeling less embarrassed by mistakes they made during testing.

The findings suggest error-management participants learn to deal with anger and frustration early on in training and how to plan, Monitor and revise problem-solving strategies. These emotional- and cognitive-control skills help them when they later work on tasks that are more difficult, Keith says.

"Trainers should consider refraining from the well-meaning tendency to provide help when participants are stuck on a task," Keith says. Refraining from doing this "gives more responsibility to the learners, who become active learners rather than mere recipients of instruction," she notes.