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In Praise of Failure

Motivating Students

In Praise of Failure

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One of the biggest failures of higher education is punishing student failure. A bad performance on an assignment is preserved and carried all the way to the final grade. This makes students adverse to risk and obsessed with grades.

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One of the biggest failures of higher education is punishing student failure. A bad performance on an assignment is preserved and carried all the way to the final grade. This makes students adverse to risk and obsessed with grades.

But failure is one of our most powerful teaching tools. Many, if not most, of the really important things we learn in life come through failure. I install a kitchen faucet the wrong way, it fails, and from this experience I learn to install it the right way. Learning from failure hardened the lesson in my mind much better than it would have been had I just been told the right way to begin with. As educators, we should be embracing, if not encouraging, student failure as a teaching device.

Coaches understand this principle. NFL coaches will tell rookies not to be afraid of making mistakes in practice because that is the only way they will learn. The worst thing they can do is nothing. Wade Phillips went one step further when he told his team before a preseason game that “your mistakes are my fault; your lack of effort is your fault.” Think of the educational view that this comment embodies.

The founders of Google understood the principle. Once during the early years, the Google marketing manager reluctantly informed one of the founders that she had made a mistake that cost the company a million dollars. His response? He told her that he was glad that she made the mistake because it showed that she was taking risks, and the company would never grow without people taking risks. The results speak for themselves. Google is famous for its experimentation, but that experimentation is not possible unless employees know that failure is OK.  

Games are powerful learning devices because they allow for low-cost failure. Go through the wrong door and you will get killed and then respawn to try a different door. Failure is not to be feared; it is treated as a learning experience.

We can incorporate failure as a teaching device with assessments that reward final achievement rather than punish mistakes along the way. I worked with a professor who gave everyone in his course an “A” because students were required to revise and resubmit their assignments until they reached “A” work, and then he accepted it. Instead of becoming discouraged by their failures, students knew that they could achieve high grades if they were willing to work and learn from their mistakes.  

The online environment is ideal for setting up assessments that reward final achievement. An instructor can have students do multiple-choice quizzes after each reading and allow for resubmissions until the student gets all the questions correct. The instructor can watch the number of submissions to prevent guessing. 

We can also use peer assessments to catch student errors before they are submitted. Students can be put into pairs, or small groups, and post their writing assignments to one another to check for clarity, grammar, etc. David Wiley at Brigham Young University had his students post their written work to a blog before handing it in. The students received comments from other students and even faculty at other institutions, which improved their work tremendously. Wiley found that dozens of other people were effectively doing his job for him by providing students with commentary. It multiplied student outcomes without any extra effort on his part. (http://bit.ly/1MCGrma)

The University of Maryland Baltimore County found that when they switched chemistry labs from individual students doing experiments and submitting their results, to groups of students posting their findings to a blog and receiving feedback from other students, the average passing rate in class went from 71.2 percent to 85.6 percent, even as the minimum score needed to pass went up. (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/02/chemistry) Here again students were given the opportunity to identify their errors and correct them before they became a part of the grade.

We can also reduce the fear of public failure. Many faculty in the flipped classroom use class time to pepper students with questions that fish for a specific answer that the instructor has in mind. But this forces the student to guess at what the instructor is thinking, and possibly guess wrong in front of others. Most students decide to leave it to those few who always answer the instructor's questions. Besides, the answer will come out eventually anyway.

When looking for a specific answer, faculty are better off using in-class polling systems to gather responses anonymously. Students are not worried about guessing wrong, and everyone submits a guess, not just the one student called upon or who raises his or her hand. Having submitted a guess, they can see how others guessed and are interested in discovering whether they got it right. They are now invested in the answer and so are paying better attention to it, and getting it wrong is not a problem.

Consider ways to encourage failure in your courses.