Helping Students Learn From Failure

This week, we’re reposting an entry from Fall, 2017, on the ways in which we can help students learn from failure and adversity, as a prelude to this week’s Conversations on Teaching sessions on Helping Students Learn From Failure. It’s a tough topic, and in this immediate post-midterm context, some of our students may be struggling and frustrated without necessarily seeing a clear path forward. By suggesting ways in which we might help students learn from failure, what we’re really after here is restoring motivationFailing grades are one of the most significant “de-motivators” out there, and getting students to realize that there is still time to rescue their grade—but more importantly, to learn and be successful in the larger sense—is crucial. If you’re looking for ways to help students make this step, consider joining us either Wednesday afternoon at 4:00, or Thursday at 10:30 AM. We hope to see you there!

[Originally published Feb. 2o, 2017] This is the week where we report low midterm grades, and for many of our students, the prospect of failure becomes something a bit more urgent and real. This dilemma presents a series of choices for our students, and we hope that they are able to choose wisely in order to remedy whatever problems contributed to that low midterm grade. But how can we ensure that this is what really happens–that our students take the appropriate lessons from failure and use them to become more successful? After all, we know that fear of failure often leads students to make choices we’d rather not see: cheating, for example, or seeing learning as merely strategic instead of something deeper.

The key, I think, is to help students understand that failure is not a permanent status or condition. If students see failure as an end, rather than an interruption, it destroys their motivation. Without consistent sources of motivation, students have an extraordinarily difficult time succeeding in college. A recent study of the causes of students’ failure in college ascribes great significance to motivation, or lack thereof, when it comes to failure in either an individual class or with college in general. So how do we get students to learn from, rather than surrender to, failure?

Part of the answer may lie in research surrounding “mindset.” As Psychologist Carol Dweck has argued, a “growth mindset” (as opposed to a “fixed mindset”) allows us to recover from failures by seeing them as merely interruptions or necessary preludes to ultimately being successful. Students who possess a growth mindset are more resilient academically, Dweck has argued, and see themselves capable of growth and improvement, rather than “stuck” at a certain level of achievement. Inculcating this growth mindset can be hard, though; it’s not enough to just praise a student’s effort without addressing the outcome. Rather, we have to help them identify strategies to remain in a growth mindset, to conceive of themselves as academic works-in-progress capable of mastering difficult concepts or tasks by employing appropriate effort and strategies. And a big part of this process is equipping our students with the tools to learn from their failures.

Failure, as John Orlando argues, “is one of the best teachers.” Yet we often don’t structure our courses or our assessments to incorporate this teaching element. Do students have opportunities to practice, and fail, before performing a higher-stakes assignment? When we return a paper with a failing grade, what do we expect our students to do with it? Are there opportunities to revise and re-write? Might we conceive of ways in which students have the opportunity to “close the loop” with our assessments by receiving and then acting on our feedback? Allowing students to reflect on what went wrong, to discern for themselves what they need to improve or why their initial effort was unsuccessful, can be another strategy to help them learn from failure.

Beyond particular assessments, classroom climate also plays a significant role in how students might be encouraged to learn from failure. Some institutions, like Northwestern’s Engineering School and Stanford University, have recognized that addressing failure and intentionally creating ways for students to learn from it and incorporate those lessons into their future efforts is an excellent way to promote student success in the long run. These institutional examples offer some important insights for our own practice; they place a premium on resilience and growth, and create the spaces where students can safely reflect on and move beyond initial failures. There are a number of other specific strategies we might employ in our own classes to create this sort of climate. We can create opportunities for students to engage in “productive failure” as a way to prime them for more effective and deeper learning. This can be something as simple as “warm-up” exercises modeling the material before students have had the chance to learn it fully (as the linked article above discusses) to generate wider participation and richer discussion. There are other particular strategies we can use, too: focusing on the problem-solving process itself, not defining success as perfection, or allowing students to instruct one another in order to learn collaboratively. Whichever means we employ, though, allowing students the opportunity to “fail safely,” and learn from that failure, can be an essential part of their learning.

Image: Stairs! by Flickr user Richard Leeming. Creative Commons Licensed.


Monday, March 9, 3:30-4:30 PM, Blackboard: Grade Center Basics

Tuesday, March 10, 11:00-11:30 AM, Lunch & Learn: Tech Tools—YouTube as a Teaching Tool

Wednesday, March 11, 4:00-5:00 PM, Helping Students Learn From Failure

Thursday, March 12, 10:30-11:30 AM, Helping Students Learn From Failure

Friday, Mar. 6, 12:00-1:00 PM, Instructional Technology: Panopto

For a complete schedule of CETL programming for the semester, click HERE or consult the CETL Calendar.

Finally, remember that learning is a process, and sometimes complex tasks take more time to fully master. Here’s a very good doggo to help illustrate the point:


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