Fail (in order) to Succeed

Last week I attended the CUE2 Symposium held here on the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University. CUE2 stands for the Second Commission on Undergraduate Education. The first CUE was formed in 2002 “…to identify the core values that should characterize the undergraduate experience of our students.” The charge of the second commission “… is to interpret the mission of an undergraduate education in the 21st century and develop a new model that will serve us for the next decade or more.” In fulfilling that charge, CUE2 leaders have invited noted thinkers and innovators in undergraduate education to campus to address these issues. Three speakers addressed us last week, Edward B. Burger, President, Southwestern University, Randy Bass, Vice Provost for Education and Professor of English at Georgetown University, and Steven Mintz, Professor of History at University of Texas, Austin and founding director of The University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.

All three had interesting things to say about transforming undergraduate education, but I found Edward Burger’s remarks to be particularly intriguing.

Burger is the co-author of a book, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, with Michael Starbird [Princeton University Press, 2012]. Burger and Starbird describe five elements that characterize effective thinking: understanding deeply, failing in order to succeed, raising questions, seeing the flow of ideas, and engaging change. A review of the book on Farnam Street Blog summarizes the elements. The book is a quick read and one that I think instructors will find valuable in thinking at a high level about learning and teaching. The chapter on how mistakes can ignite insight, along with Burger’s remarks at the symposium on effective failure, struck a chord.

Last summer The Innovative Instructor featured two posts on successful failure, When Failure is a Good Thing (July 14, 2017) and How Pretesting Can Help Your Students Fail Well (July 18, 2017. The first post discussed a program at Smith College that encourages students to understand the value of failure as a learning tool, the second offered a practical means, pre-testing, for instructors to use failure as an instructional strategy.

Burger maintains that effective failure is key to successful learning. It’s what you do after you make a mistake that informs your understanding. If a student receives an 80% on a test, does s/he think that is an adequate grade and move on or does the student take a careful look at what questions were answered incorrectly and seek to understand the topic? Burger characterizes acceptance of the 80% grade without further refelction as “ineffective failure.”

In Burger’s math courses, 5% of a student’s grade is based on effective failure; in order to get an A, students must first fail. Taking this approach opens students to taking risks and learning from their mistakes. When a student answers a question in class incorrectly, the instructor should ask, “Why is this wrong?” Let the students be the teachers and transform the failure into moving thinking and understanding forward. Burger maintains that “every mistake is a teacher and holds a lesson.” [The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, p. 50].

Burger summarizes the concept of making mistakes: “Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers — they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.” [p. 6].

These are valuable strategies for students and instructors alike.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Quick Tips: Subscribe to the STEM|PROF Newsletter

STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo.In order to keep the readers of The Innovative Instructor informed, I follow a number of blogs and read a lot of books and articles on pedagogy and instruction in higher education. Recently I became aware of a new-to-me resource that I’d like to share, the STEM|PROF weekly newsletter.

The newsletter is part of the outreach for a National Science Foundation-funded and Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning-supported longitudinal study looking at the effectiveness of professional development programs for STEM doctoral students on their early-career teaching. The website for the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars has a wealth of information on the research and related resources, including the STEM|PROF newsletter.

From the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars STEM|PROF webpage:

The Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars publishes a weekly newsletter, STEM|PROF, that helps advance the preparation of future STEM faculty as effective undergraduate instructors and mentors. STEM|PROF curates news, research, and events from four areas:

  • Teaching development for current and future STEM faculty;
  • Undergraduate STEM education;
  • Doctoral education in STEM fields; and
  • Academic career formation.

Articles cited range widely in topic and are relevant to those outside of the STEM disciplines. For example, a recent newsletter linked to an article in the Washington Post, Why we still need to study humanities in a STEM world (Valerie Strauss, October 18, 2017). Often newsletters include links to upcoming webinars and professional development opportunities. This week’s topics included a link to an article on strategies for generating discussion and engagement in large classes: Class Size Matters by Deborah J. Cohan, Inside Higher Ed, September 19, 2017. And there are links to useful teaching tools such as Icebreakers that Rock from the blog Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzalez.

To subscribe to STEM|PROF, send a blank email to The newsletter will be delivered to your email inbox on a weekly basis.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo

New Mobile Application to Improve Your Teaching

Tcrunch logo. Tcrunch in white letters on blue background.Finding time to implement effective teaching strategies can be challenging, especially for professors where teaching is only one of their many responsibilities. PhD student John Hickey is trying to solve this problem with Tcrunch, a new application (available on the Apple and Google App stores for free) he has created.

Tcrunch enables more efficient and frequent teacher-student communication. You can think about it as an electronic version of the teaching strategy called an “exit ticket.” An “exit ticket” is traditionally a 3×5 card given to students at the end of class; the teacher asks a question to gain feedback from the students and the students write a brief response. Here you can do the same thing, but Tcrunch eliminates any paper and performs all collecting and analyzing activities in real-time.

Tcrunch Teacher Portal screen shot.There is both a teacher and student portal into the app. Teachers can create and manage different classes. Within a class, teachers can create a question or prompt and release it to their students, who will also have Tcrunch. Students can then see this question, click on it, and answer it. Student answers come into the teacher’s app in real-time. Teachers can evaluate the results in the app or email themselves the results in the form of an Excel document. Other functionalities include multiple choice, a bank of pre-existing questions to help improve teaching, and an anonymous setting for student users.

John developed Tcrunch because of his own struggles with time and improving learning in the classroom:

“I taught my first university-level class at Johns Hopkins, and I wanted more regular feedback to my teaching style, classroom activities, and student comprehension than just the course evaluation at the end of the year. As an engineer, frequent feedback is critical to iterative improvements. I also knew that I was not going to handout, collect, read, and analyze dozens of papers at the end of each class. So, I created Tcrunch.”

The app development process took nearly a year, with iterative coding and testing with Tcrunch student view of app. Screen shot.teachers and students. Both student and teacher users have enjoyed using Tcrunch. They have referenced enjoying the ease of use, being able to create and answer questions on the go, and having a platform for all their classes in one place. John has personally found Tcrunch has helped him to restructure classroom time and assignment load, and even to find out why students are missing class.

John cites this development process as the main difference between his app and already existing polling technologies.

“Finding out what the professors and students wanted allowed me to see the needs that were not filled by existing technologies. This resulted in an app specifically designed to help teachers, instead of the other way around, for example, a generalized polling tool that is also applied to teaching. The specificity in design gives it its unique functionality and user experience.”

In the future John wants to extend the reach of Tcrunch to more teachers through advertising and partnering with Edtech organizations.

While the app may not be as flashy as Pokemon Go, Tcrunch has great utility and potential in the classroom.

To find and use the app, search Tcrunch in the Apple or Google App stores and download. John Hickey can be contacted at

John Hickey
National Science Foundation Fellow
Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate
Johns Hopkins University

Images source: John Hickey 2018