Monday, November 23, 2015

Failure with a Capital F = Learning with a Capital L

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker.  Failure is delay, not defeat.  It is a temporary detour, not a dead end.  Failure is something we can avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley

Mistakes are some of the most debilitating experiences to face, but they are also some of the most incredible and profound opportunities for learning.  Despite this realization and the constant recognition that failure is in fact, the best way to truly learn, we continue to operate in an educational tradition that encourages as few mistakes as possible.

In fact, I recently typed “fear of failure” into a Google search and was rewarded with 141 million hits in .67 seconds.  Sites that offer studies, statistics, and therapeutic ways to overcome this incredibly prevalent phobia.  This poses the question that I believe most people have: if learning from mistakes is such a natural phenomenon, even one that is encouraged in some instances, what happens when we put students in situations where they are required to avoid making any mistakes at all costs?

By the time students arrive to college, they have an ingrained sense of what education is about.  For most, this means they attend class, pay attention, write notes, take and pass assessments, and move on to a more elevated course.  Once the class is completed, there is little to no reflection on the material “learned” in it. If our focus remains on outcomes and not the learning process itself, we will continue to lose sight of the value of learning, and students will miss out on gaining a deeper understanding and use of course material.  However, in order to begin developing a more deeply dependent course on learning, there are several things you’ll have to consider. 

First, it means designing or redesigning a course that provides students with multiple opportunities to participate in low-stakes formative assessments.  This means you’ll have to work with corrective or prescriptive directions that demonstrate to students how to learn from mistakes that are made.  Ask yourself three questions concerning your course and the things you hope students to gain from completing it. 
  • How do I shift my focus to celebrating mistakes rather than eliminating them?
  • How can I encourage and reward mistakes for students that have demonstrated they have learned from the experience?
  • How many times should I allow students to make mistakes and then demonstrate they have learned form it as a measure of learning and success?
These are questions that you must answer yourself using your own teaching philosophy and the experiences you’ve witnessed in your classroom previously concerning student struggle, involved learning, and demonstration of knowledge.

To get you started, here are five ways to celebrate mistakes in your course (and have students recognize, reflect, and learn from them):
  1. Utilize repetition.  Break your projects or papers into pieces for check-points to be made.  These can be done via peer evaluation or by providing a checklist for students to assess on their own.  Have students keep these check-points as artifacts to discuss in a final reflection paper after completing the project.  Simply providing students with the opportunity to review assignments through the lens of reviewer can prove to be very insightful.
  2. Give several shorter exams/quizzes that are cumulative.  This is a great alternative to a single midterm or final exam because it considerably lessens stress placed on students to achieve highly on a single assessment.  Instead, repeated cumulative testing provides more exposure to content and relies on students being able to recall it for the entire semester, thus maintaining and building their understanding of it.
  3. Let the class correct themselves.  This can be done via polling, asking verbal questions, or providing small group discussion time.  Have students provide answers to a question at the beginning of class, and then give them guided questions to consider in small groups.  These questions should help them to consider the answers that were offered and make learned decisions on which one is actually correct.  This provides students with the opportunity to not only find the correct answer, but to determine why the other answers were incorrect.
  4. Purposefully make errors.  This can be done in lecture, on PowerPoints, on calculations, with polling or Clicker questions, whatever you prefer.  Encourage students to catch your mistakes. This creates a fun atmosphere where students are focused, reflective on knowledge they’ve accumulated about a topic, and encouraged to participate.
  5. Show them what they will learn.  At the beginning of the semester, provide students with an assignment (either ungraded or part of a participation grade) that they will be able to do at the end of the semester, but can’t yet.  This sparks their interest about the course, as well as their intrinsic motivation to discover what they will gain in order to solve the problem that you’ve provided to them.  Reference this assignment throughout the semester during key points of the course so students can reflect on changes they would make to their first attempt in order to reach success.  Finally, at the end of the semester, have them attempt the same assignment again.
Recognizing how to effectively learn from and move past mistakes is an important life skill.  Fostering this concept in your classroom will ultimately instill humility, responsibility, forgiveness, and accountability in students, and encourage them to drop their fear of failure and embrace an appreciation for the process of learning. 

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser
Adapted from Berkeley University

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