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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Make Them Learn: With Carrot or Stick?

Feedback is essential for learning. Not only does the feedback need to ensure that learning was achieved (as in testing), but feedback also needs to reinforce the motivation to learn. The age-old questions arises: do we use the carrot or the stick? Which works best, negative or positive reinforcement? Most people have an opinion, but now we have scientific studies of the question. And the answer is, it depends.

For example, three studies showed that adults correct their behavior better in response to negative feedback rather than positive feedback, whereas 8- to 11-year old children respond just the opposite. A follow-up study by Anna van Duijvenvoorde and colleagues in the Netherlands used MRI scans to examine how the brain changes with age and how that relates to feedback-based learning. The subjects were divided into three age groups, 8-9, 11-13, and 18-25. Each subject performed the same learning task and were given positive and negative feedback to improve their performance. After each trial, subjects were shown on a screen an “X” or a “+” to tell them they were wrong or right.

Regardless of the nature of the feedback, young adults learned bdetter than the children. For all three age groups, learning was more effective with positive feedback. Moreover, the decreased learning from negative feedback was conspicuously greater in the youngest age group, while in the young adults, the effect of feedback type was negligible.

Not surprisingly, there were brain scan indicators of differing response to type of feedback. With age, both types of feedback produced a shift toward recruiting more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the cortex was more active after negative feed back in adults but after positive feedback in the 8-9 year-old children. The prefrontal cortex activity was about the same for negative and positive feedback in the 11-13 year olds, suggesting that this is a transition stage in development of learning style and capability.

Take home message? Positive feedback usually works best in young children (that is, after all, how they train seals). Negative feedback works just about as well as positive feedback in young adults. One more point: with the exception of language acquisition, young children are not the superior learners that many people believe.

Source: van Duijvenvoorde, A. C. K. 2008. Evaluating the negative or valuing the positive? Neural mechanisms supporting feedback-based learning across development. J. Neuroscience. 28 (38) 9495-9503.


  1. Great post. Very informative.

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  3. Or perhaps we need to reposition 'errors' as negative feedback. Children can learn fantastically well from errors when they are motivated to do so and get good feedback. Look at just about every video game kids play - they make errors and die thousands of times as they master often difficult tasks. No problems there. They love it; reflect on how and why the error occurred and have no problem discussing it with their peers. Similarly in sport. They take a shot in football and miss but that does not stop them trying again and again. If they learned only from positive feedback and not mistakes then they would never ride a bike or would be much use in evolutionary terms.

    Maybe getting a simple cross (what does that tell you?) and then a teacher barking at them or giving no further feedback is the problem. Look at the work of Michael Frese and others on error management methods.


Please contribute your ideas. This blog is all about making learning easier for everyone.