Failing to succeed

One thing that has been really good about being part of ALPS has been the community around it.

For example, this week’s post is inspired by my former colleague and general force of nature, Maxine David, who pushed out this thread the other day (click to read it all):

Essentially, Maxine’s asking the same question that I think we’ve all asked at some point: what are we trying to achieve in our classes?

As you’ll see from the responses to the thread, I started to sketch out a position, but I’d like to expand on it here some more.

Amanda and Nina have long championed failure in the classroom as a valuable learning experience for students. Their argument – which I also hold to – is that hitting nominal targets is good, but not a complete education: not hitting them encourages students to reflect more on the process of learning (and application) that they’ve undertaken. Think of it as being analogous to playing a game, where not hitting the (rather different) target makes you go back and try again, with the thought of why it didn’t work before in your mind.

This model requires us to acknowledge that learning has multiple targets.

Yes, we want students to know stuff and know how to do stuff (which we can catch with summative assessments), but we also want students to know how to know all this. Becoming a reflexive learner and a critical thinker is a core skill for building capacity to learn throughout the rest of one’s life and it’s a skill that has no easy metric, nor any obvious threshold.

And thresholds were my first thought when I read Maxine’s thread.

When we assess, we typically look for evidence of meeting some threshold: does the student demonstrate that they know enough about X or enough about how to do Y? Those thresholds are present in our grading and those institutional matrices that benchmark us all to common standards.


Maxine rightly points out that we cannot really ever separate out the formative and summative elements of assessment: if we genuinely value the development of reflexive learning, then we absolutely shouldn’t be trying to separate them out in the first place.

But this position is vanishingly rare in academia these days. Yes, I tell my doctoral students that a good viva should see every singly person coming out of the room having learnt something, but even that’s not a given.

Easy as it would be to blame the pressures of QA culture and metrification for all this, we also have to recognise that we often don’t create opportunities within our own classes. Even if we aren’t allowed to make adjustments for support received (as Maxine suggests), we should still be trying to instil a culture of collaboration, reflection and development among our students and between them and us.

In so doing we might start to reclaim some of that learning opportunity that will serve everyone in the class well, wherever they are and whatever they do.


You might have seen that England is going through some very pointed discussions about racism, following the European football championships. This tweet from one of the national team players exactly captures the point: