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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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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