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What's the best way to learn? The 85% rule says it's OK to make mistakes

"Perfection is not going to be optimal for learning."
This is too hard
Overwhelmed by that math formula? It's OK to make mistakes!Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Forget perfection. When it comes to learning, making a healthy number of mistakes is a more effective way of absorbing new skills than trying to be flawless, researchers reported Tuesday.

But just how many mistakes are acceptable? Enter the “85% rule” — or getting things right 85% of the time, an accuracy rate that’s the sweet spot when it comes to learning most efficiently, a study published in Nature Communications has found.

That means a 15% error rate, which allows someone to have space to improve without giving up, said lead author Robert Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Arizona.

“We have this focus on perfection in society and certainly in education,” Wilson told TODAY. “But perfection is not going to be optimal for learning."

“If you’re doing something and you are 100% accurate, you’re not going to be taking as much from that as a situation where you are struggling a little bit. That’s the point at which you’re actually learning the most — struggling a little bit, but not too much.”

In other words: Failure is an option — a healthy and helpful one — at least some of the time.

The study involved computers that were taught simple tasks, like classifying different patterns into one of two categories. It was basic trial-and-error learning, which involved trying an approach and then changing the strategy slightly if it didn’t work.

The computers learned fastest when the task was designed to be not too hard but also not too easy, so that they were able to get it right 85% of the time.

Wilson believes the findings would likely apply to humans, too.

Other research has found people are most engaged and learn the most when their training isn’t set up to be too easy, he noted. They avoid the boredom of a too-simple task or the anxiety of something that’s too hard and instead enter a state of “flow” where they’re completely immersed in an activity that’s the perfect challenge for them.

But Wilson didn’t want people, particularly students, to take the “85% rule” too literally.

“One thing I definitely don’t want people to take from this is that you should be aiming for 85% in all of your classes,” he said.

He’d prefer that educators and parents reduce the push for perfection in learning, so that students can take more risks rather than stick to safe and easy classes where they may not be learning the most.

“When you find something engaging that’s difficult and is at the edge of what you can do, you are intrinsically motivated to do that,” Wilson said.

“Certainly, I see that with my own kids — they really gravitate to the things that they just can’t quite do, that’s the biggest challenge for them.”

People should listen to that feeling more and not be so driven by perfection, he advised.