Paul Feigenbaum’s article (2021) on failure changed how I think about it. I’ve written a lot about failure—advocating for it and what it contributes to learning—and Feigenbaum agrees: failure plays a powerful role in learning. He calls it “generative failure” and describes it as an “orientation in which mistakes, errors, and setbacks represent temporary, healthy, and integral components of any learning process” (p. 15).
But touting the benefits of failure has a downside that I’ve mostly ignored: “efforts to cast failure as a positive learning experience can backfire, instead provoking fear and anxiety among students who have been conditioned to perceive failure in negative terms” (p. 15). For some students, failure is shameful, a sign of inherent inferiority, a “holistic judgment of one’s character, intelligence, and potential” (p. 17).
These conceptions of failure influence how students think about learning: they think it should be easy. If learning requires hard work, that’s a sign that the learner isn’t very smart and lacks ability. Afraid of failing, students don’t take risks, try new approaches, or explore options. “Stigmatized failure,” according to Feigenbaum, makes experiences “such as a failing grade on a paper or exam seem like a profound judgment on one’s talent and ability rather than a temporary and contingent evaluation from which one might obtain valuable feedback and improve one’s future performance” (p. 17).
Stigmatized failure grows out of a cultural narrative that promotes hypercompetitive individualism where success is a zero-sum game. If someone wins, it means someone else loses. The myth of bootstrap upward mobility proposes that anyone who tries hard, stays strong, and persists can move up. Everyone has the opportunity to make good. In reality, not everyone has equal opportunities to succeed. Some have more resources than others; in the case of students, that includes access to better schools, a spate of enrichment activities, and multiple options for higher education. For those without resources, extra schooling is usually combined with work and family obligations. Options for higher education must be nearby, online, and inexpensive. Success is harder and the cost of failure higher.
The cultural narrative about success and failure did not originate in postsecondary institutions, but educational experiences there certainly reinforce what many students have been led to believe about failure. Institutional policies and practices stipulate the consequences of failure in a course, in a program, or at the institution, and those consequences diminish personal agency and professional opportunities.
It’s possible in individual courses to lower the stakes of failing. Many teachers have done this by increasing the number of exams or making first exams count less than subsequent ones. Formative feedback and grades may be disconnected, as is the case when papers or projects are submitted for feedback and returned for revision before they’re graded. Quizzes can be used to help students prepare for exams and retaken until the content is mastered.
But low-stakes grading covers failure with Band-Aids. A recent piece decries the use of grades and the insidious ways they motivate students. Feigenbaum points out that individual teachers are not in positions where they can easily change institutional policy or revise the cultural ethos. At some point teachers must turn in grades for assignments, and students who have failed to learn from their mistakes suffer the consequences.
What teachers can do better is to acknowledge the dissonance that advocating for failure without being cognizant of its implications creates. Feigenbaum uses a borrowed term, “wise interventions,” to describe teachers “being transparent and precise about their limited capacity to transform the conditions of failure” (p. 22). That transparency can be conveyed with straight-up discussion of failure on an exam, in a course, or in college—what it means, who experiences it and when, and how it might be okay. Finally, he suggests “communal failure,” where everyone fails at a task together. He references an “Impossible Project,” where students work on a project they cannot possibly complete in the given time frame.
Students do work that fails to meet minimum standards. And we have a professional responsibility to award the grades they have earned. We need to fill these obligations understanding that failure has implications that transcend the individual event. One failure after another grinds down students’ beliefs about what they can accomplish. I used to tell my students about the F I got in a graduate course on Shakespeare. In a cavalier way I pointed out how failing that course hadn’t ruined my life, the implication being that a low score wouldn’t ruin theirs. After reading this article, I regret using an example that ignores how failure unfairly affects the lives of some students but not others.
Feigenbaum, P. (2021). Telling students it’s O.K. to fail, but showing them it isn’t: Dissonant paradigms of failure in higher education. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 9(1), 13–27. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.9.1.3 [open access]