Failure is Part of Learning

“By seeking and blundering we learn’ ~JoHann Wolfgang von Goethe

When we think about the accepted content in our disciplines, we know that established theories, processes, or standards don’t start out as the perfectly polished final prodcuts that we often use as examples for our students. Theories and processes evolve, are reviewed and refined, through trial, error and peer review. Great ideas come from taking risks and accepting that the result may not be what we anticipated or even be successful on the first pass. Encouraging students to take chances and be innovative should be incorporated into your class to help students develop the art of taking risks and pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones. Those in the sciences may already encourage comfort with uncertainty through the model of the hypothesis and experimentation process. The premise is that you aren’t sure of the outcome and your original assumption may not match an unintended result. Is that failure? Have we learned something along the way? And can that learning be applied to other situations?

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again’ ~ unknown

In a recent Teaching Tip titled, “Gamifying Your Course,’ published 29 April 2014, Owen Guthrie talked about incorporating low stakes activities which   encourage students to try new approaches, sometimes successful and sometimes not. Guthrie says, “low stakes also encourage experimentation by suppressing the natural fear students have of getting something wrong.’   What kind of activities do you offer your students to get them thinking critically about your course topic, but in such a way that allows them to explore and try new approaches? Do you have opportunities for students to submit a draft, get some feedback from you or from peers, and then revise? Do you have a variety of assessments that are of both low and high point value? Do you have a progression of assignments that are built upon each other or separated into individual pieces that can later be brought together as a capstone?

“The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.’ ~ Dale Carnegie

Encourage students to reflect on the risks they have taken that weren’t as successful as they imagined. Assign them to repurpose their attempts. Have students ask themselves: Why didn’t that work? Why was that wrong? Are there changes I can make so that it does work? Is my original premise flawed? Critical reflection, and being able to answer such questions, is learning.

Some activities that encourage risk-taking:

  • Discussion forums or small group conversations
  • Posted reflections
  • Draft/Revision/Final
  • Roleplaying activities
  • Observe and predict scenarios
  • Rewards for giving peer review and encouragement
  • Assignment options (do 4 of 6)
  • Final portfolio of assessments throughout semester
  • Alternative assignment mediums (audio, video, web interactive)

Mistake Inventions Find Success




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