Failure As A Skill

FailI’ve written previously about students learning less by not taking notes. My university is introducing first-year seminars in the fall semester, and I’m teaching one of them. Probably most of the incoming students can benefit from explicit instruction on study skills, and I’m thinking about how to incorporate study skills training into the course. This guide has given me some good ideas, as have the webpages at links embedded in the post that I mention above.

Perhaps even more difficult than altering students’ study habits is changing their perception of failure. Students come to college thinking that they need to avoid failure rather than embrace, recover, and learn from it. As I’ve mentioned previously, the quality of failure assignment at the end of the semester has been incredibly useful in this regard. Starting in the fall, I’ll also be putting what I’m calling a knowledge plan assignment at the beginning of the semester — students will identify the goals they have for a course and write about how they might achieve them. But I should also be teaching about the usefulness of failure throughout the semester rather than just referencing it at either end of the semester. Anne Sobel has some great advice on how to do this in a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the best ways to teach a concept is to model it, and this is difficult for instructors who personify the penultimate achievement in institutionalized learning. Telling students that it is important to fail but keeping failure shrouded in secrecy is not very useful either. It is probably much more valuable to create a classroom environment in which students openly fail in front of their peers and feel that it is safe to do so.

To these ends, I’ve created a series of collaborative projects in my first-year seminar with student teams evaluating the work of other teams. I’m being deliberately mysterious about the exact nature of these projects because I plan on writing about them in more detail this fall, but they combine the use of a technology with creative writing. Students will beta test each other’s projects, scoring them with a rubric on form and function that I’m hoping they themselves will create at the beginning of the course.

As Anne Sobel points out, I need to ensure that students don’t evaluate their work solely on the basis of whether an end product exemplifies success. There needs to be a process in which students repeatedly practice and get feedback so that failure becomes a routine, easily-recognizable event. The trick will be to design a system in which this feedback comes from the students themselves.