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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