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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How Pretesting Can Help Your Students Fail Well

Our previous post When Failure is a Good Thing, looked at an initiative at Smith College called Failing Well, a set of programs that helps student understand that failing can lead to better learning. Today, The Innovative Instructor offers a concrete way in which you can introduce students to that concept.

Piece of lined, loose leaf notebook paper with six multiple choice questions. ABC or D is circled in red for each question.In Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing (New York Times Magazine, September 4, 2104), Benedict Carey discusses the benefits of pretesting. He asks us to imagine that on the first day of a course we illicitly got a copy of the final exam. Would it help us to study more effectively and better attend to course readings, lecture materials, and class discussions? Undoubtedly it would. He then asks, “But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.” This is the concept of pretesting.

Carey calls it one of the most exciting developments in the science of learning field. “Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.” The failure on the pretest is an example of failing well. It sets students up for better learning during the course. A study by U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork found that “…pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.”

Carey cites additional studies of pretesting with the insight that “testing might be the key to studying” and a way of “enriching and altering memory.” More traditional ways of studying do not seem to produce the same depth of learning that frequent testing, including the kind of self-examination that includes recitation, appears to yield. Other studies have shown that immediacy of feedback—getting the correct answers soon after the pretest—led to the greatest learning gains.

Why does pretesting work? There are several theories. First it gives students a preview of the material and helps them “prime the brain” to absorb what is most important. A pretest sets up a hierarchy and adjusts student thinking. Secondly, it exposes false impressions, things students think they know but don’t, by conveying multiple possible answers that they may not have considered as possibilities. Biological factors may come into play as well. Guessing at an answer on a pretest works differently from the memory functions at play in remembering and studying. Guessing embeds an unfamiliar concept into the brain that will be recognized when come across again, particularly if that happens within a short timeframe.

There are limitations. For example, a pretest for an intro course in a foreign language using unfamiliar characters (Russian, Chinese, Arabic) wouldn’t work because students have no “scaffolding of familiar language to work with.” In fact, “[t]he research thus far suggests that prefinals will be much more useful in humanities courses and social-science disciplines in which unfamiliar concepts are at least embedded in language we can parse.”

What can we take away from Carey’s article? Because pretests don’t need to be graded, this can be an easy innovation to implement in your courses. A short multiple choice quiz given before your lecture or class discussion asking questions pertaining to the key points you will cover could make a big difference in your students’ learning of the material. To be sure that they leave with the right information, review the quiz and the correct answers at the end of class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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When Failure is a Good Thing

Smith College, and some other institutions of higher learning, are taking a new approach to failure and we should all be paying attention. At many colleges and universities, students strive for success at all costs; failure is not an option. There is a prevailing sense that peers are easily achieving great things with little effort, a B- is perceived as a bad grade, stress levels run high. At Smith, the time had come to call out both the ubiquity and the benefits of failure.

In On Campus, Failure is on the Syllabus (The New York Times, June 24, 2017), Jessica Bennett describes the initiative at Smith where students and faculty were videotaped describing their worst failure. These have been played at a campus hub during fall orientation and again during the final-exam period. In an atmosphere where everything seems pressured and competitive it was helpful to students to see that everyone struggles and that that is O.K.

The initiative, Failing Well, “…is a set of programs dedicated to the discussion of failure, risk taking and mistakes. …the mission is to increase student resilience by teaching, telling stories, and opening a campus conversation about failure.” The idea is to show students that their self-worth shouldn’t be tied solely to success, and that “failing well” can lead to unexpected bonuses. Given a set of skills and permission to “screw up” actually leads students to better learning and helps them to develop networks of resources.

Smith is not alone in this endeavor. Bennett lists other institutions engaged in similar “…remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.” Today’s students have different needs in the real world and higher education should be preparing them appropriately.

As to the causes for the intense need to succeed, complicated forces and factors are at play, including child-rearing and cultural practices, “college admissions mania,” economic fears, social media, and a need to be busy, so called “competitive stress.”

Although an individual instructor may not be able to implement a campus-wide initiative, it is worth thinking about ways in which faculty can help students understand that failure is valuable to learning. In the next post, The Innovative Instructor will look at a specific practice of failure that enables better learning that anyone can use in teaching.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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