Is Effort More Important than IQ?

“Why are some people so much more effective at learning from their mistakes?” That’s the question researchers are asking to understand why some people respond better to learning by trial and error, according to the article “Why Do Some People Learn Faster,” by Jonah Lehrer.

Lead researcher Jason Moser of Michigan State University is searching for the answer with an experiment that detects two reactions that happen in the brain after making a mistake. First is the reaction called error-related negativity (ERN). Using electroenchephalography (EEG) researchers were able to detect a reaction 50 milliseconds after someone made a mistake. This reaction is neural and mostly involuntary.

The other sign is called error positivity (Pe) and is present somewhere between 100-500 milliseconds after making a mistake. This reaction happens when someone realizes they made a mistake. Other studies have shown those who have a larger ERN signal (or a bigger response) and a more consistent Pe signal (they’re paying attention to the error) are more effective learners.

Moser expanded on previous research by asking if perceptions that people had about their ability to learn new things manipulated the involuntary signals in the brain. In the article, Lehrer explains:

In her influential research, Carol Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

The study found subjects who have a growth mindset were “significantly better” at learning through trial-and-error. Another study performed by Dweck divided 500 fifth graders in two groups. After fulfilling their task, half were told “You must be smart at this” while the other half were told “You must have worked really hard.” She found the students who were praised for being smart gave up quicker and didn’t want to push themselves to advance, in fear of failing. The other group who was praised for their effort more voluntarily chose more difficult tests and persevered after small failures.

How can you help instill the trial-and-error attitude in your students?



“Why Do Some People Learn Faster?” by Jonah Lehrer. 4 October 2011. Wired. 5 October 2011. <>

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