University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Video game players understand that failure is both informative and a fundamental part of learning. As a means to master skills in a video game, it is common practice for a novice player to take high-risk actions to discover how the game works. Exploring options and consequences is one way to learn about the complexities of a game as a strategy to advance within the game. Newbies may run an avatar off a cliff, jump to a high point, run into a dark cave, or intentionally engage in behavior that knowingly would result in an undesired outcome, in the short run. The gamer understands the risk of failure is high but yields valuable information that will contribute to future success, as the game advances. I have heard it often: "students need to learn that failure is an important part of education." I am not sure it is the students who need to learn this. No, students know that failure is an essential part of learning. Instead, I argue that to expand education, it is we, as faculty, need to make the learning environment safe for student failure.
In higher education, we have long known of the value of failure. About 100 years ago, John Dewey said, "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes." At present, there is ample research in the area of "productive failure" (e.g., Loibl & Leuders, 2019). In addition to productive failure, educators often speak of the value of failing forward, growth-minded failure, and even desirable difficulties (Bjork & Bjork, 2011). Henry, et al. (2019) developed an elaborate model to help frame the research with respect to how students in STEM respond to failure. The benefit of failing is also notable in pop culture. Actor Will Smith emphatically states in his online video that "Failure is a massive part of being successful." With such an emphasis on failure, why is it that so many students seem resistant to failure in educational settings? Perhaps resistance to failure is less related to risk-taking as it is a more a function of how education is structured.
If faculty desire students to be more comfortable with failure, then we need to change the way we teach to lower the stakes in risk-taking. In this blog, I will address three areas, to get the conversation rolling: (1) rethinking how we respond to success and failure; (2) the discussions we frame in our courses, and (3) determining course grades.
Responses to Successes and Failures
It is an essential response in many situations. When you formulate a guess, and it turns out you are correct, it feels good. You get a burst of energy and are motivated to move forward. When you are wrong, it has a different feeling. You note who noticed you were wrong and the implications on the perception of your skills and abilities. Being right shows how good you are, and being wrong carries the possibilities of exposing your weaknesses. This same emotional response happens time and again, across the lifespan. From the time we are very young, we hear encouragement such as, "WOW, that is correct! Look how smart you are," and feedback such as "I am afraid that is wrong. Go ahead, don't be nervous, and give it another try." Consider how you feel about giving feedback when a student offers a response in class and is incorrect. Are you intrigued by the incorrect response and start to think about the thinking process that brought the student to that point, or do you see the incorrect response as a deficit on the part of the student? Exams come back with red lines across incorrect answers and often a score showing a minus at the top of a test, focusing the attention on the impact of incorrect responses. Overall, we are a society that values success over failure.
If we suggest to students that it is valuable to fail and learn from their failures, then we should rethink how we respond to failures at this fundamental level.
From a growth-minded perspective, we could see failure as an attempt at something advanced and a way to move forward, much like a person working just at the edge of their zone of proximal development, as it were. This shift requires us to think quickly about why an incorrect response may have happened, and what can be gleaned from the situation. Once we, as faculty, really embrace the power of failure and the value of using the experience to learn more than students would have learned from success, we will then begin to change the foundation that supports students when they fail.
Framing Discussions in our Courses
In setting the question for course discussions, there is an essential distinction between framing a discussion question for which you expect a "correct" answer and framing a discussion question for which you expect a response that is not correct, but rather informative. An example, the use of a simple call-and-respond question is a technique that asks a direct question for which there is an anticipated correct answer. I have asked in my psychology courses, "What year was psychology founded as a science?" "What school of thought did Watson found?" and "Can someone tell me why the behaviorists were so opposed to 'thinking' in their formulation of how psychology should be studied?" Such questions have a correct answer, for which students are rewarded by showing how much they have learned.
Try a different way of framing discussion questions as a prompt that offers multiple correct answers to demonstrate complex learning. When I teach the history of psychology, discussion questions center on asking why significant individuals were criticized or told they were wrong yet persevered in advancing the field. One such discussion question, for example, "Margaret Floy Washburn was told that as a woman, it would be impossible for her to get a psychology degree, which she did. What challenges and failures might she have experienced in her educational career, and why do you think she was successful where others had failed?" The subsequent discussion focuses on rich details outlining challenges, strategies to overcome obstacles, and the impact on the discipline.
Determining Course Grades
If we are to convince students that learning comes from failure, then we need to create a system that rewards productive failures and failing forward. Look specifically at the process used to determine grade assignment to determine if students really can be encouraged to fail. Consider the following situations:
What happens if a student attempt at a paper is overly ambitious and the student fails to complete the assignment as intended?
What happens if a student tries a new study technique and does poorly on the first exam. Is it possible to recover and earn a high grade in the course?
What happens if one of the student groups attempts a challenging final project and fails? Can they still receive a good grade on the project?
To encourage risk-taking that may result in failure, there have to be ways for the students to fail without causing significant harm to their grade. For faculty to say, "you learned a valuable lesson", when a group project fails that costs the students their grade in the course, the real lesson was that they should have stayed with the safe route. Alternatively, could students demonstrate what was learned from failing? Could students explain what went wrong with the project, identify where errors were made, what was learned, and how it would be attempted next time? Such a reflective exercise of working through the failure and lessons it provided may well be very informative and deserving of a high letter grade.
Learning from failure is an essential part of education and should be encouraged. It should be supported by the way we talk about success and failure, how we frame challenges, and how we grade outcomes. If we build into our courses ways for students to fail in a productive manner, they will respond the same way they do with video games. They will take chances to learn more. They may fail, and if they do, the learning experience should allow students to learn from their attempts. And if students take a risk and succeed, so be it. Maybe in the future, they will stretch further and learn even more by failing forward.
1. Select an experience outside of higher education and observe responses to success and failure. This could be observing a parent child interaction, the major characters in a movie, or a person exchange with another person. Note how success and failure are framed and rewarded or scrutinized.
2. In what ways does it appear that higher education is biased toward success, rather than built to support failing forward?
3. Explain one way in which you could adapt your course to encourage students to take chances that will likely result in failure. How would your grading system be designed so that these failures do not harm the grade students receive for their learning?
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56-64). New York: Worth Publishers.
GoalCast. (January 24, 2018). This is Why Will Smith Wants You to Fail Before You Succeed. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1Gy5YjBMvk
Henry, M.A., Shorter, S., Charkoudian, L., Heemstra, J.M., & Corwin, L.A. (2019). FAIL is not a four-letter word: A theoretical framework for exploring undergraduate students’ approaches to academic challenges and responses to failure in STEM learning. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 18(1), 1 – 17.
Stoller, A. (2013). Educating from failure: Dewey's aesthetics and the case for failure in educational theory. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 47 (1), 22 – 35.
Loibl, K. & Leuders, T. (2019). How to make failure productive: Fostering learning from errors through elaboration prompts. Learning and Instruction, Vol 62, 1-10.