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Reframing Failure for Learning

We can all describe a time when something we did went wrong, or when we made a bad decision. There are many different ways to describe failure. In the context of education and training, mistakes can provide us with lessons learned, allowing us to move forward with new knowledge gained from the experience. There's a call for educators to focus on learning from mistakes as a strategy in formal learning environments.

From the time we begin school as very young students we learn to focus on grades. As an online instructor, I sometimes receive questions such as "how much do I need to do to get an A" exposing an interest in the destination, not the journey ahead. Educator John Orlando hopes that by establishing opportunities to learn from mistakes we can "reverse the trend" of students "demoralized by failure, and focused more on the grade than the education." 

Considering Instructional Strategies

Through practical approaches to class activities and assignments, students can experience trial and error, cycles of draft and revision, while learning along the way. Building these kinds of options into online courses draws student attention to the process, as well as the final product.

  • Project-based assignments: Last semester I taught a course that leveraged group projects as learning activities. Student design teams worked through various stages of project development, each one posted for the rest of the class to review and critique in discussion forums. I, of course, reviewed and critiqued them, too. Finding flaws each week was part of the process and allowed for a more improved project each week. Since all of the projects and critiques were visible to the class, students learned from other groups' mistakes as well. The University of Maryland University College provides a list of additional advantages of online project-based learning
  • Revision-based assignments: Have you ever had the opportunity to revise an assignment you already submitted, and turn it back in for re-evaluation? This kind of assignment, with adequate feedback from an instructor, can positively impact student learning. Projects and papers could be set up with draft and final submissions. Orlando tells the story, for example, of a popular professor also known for being a tough grader, although all of his students receive A's. This instructor's approach is that "when a student hands in a paper he is given comments and told to rewrite it over and over until it is an A-quality paper. Only then is it accepted." A required writing course at The George Washington University presents another example of learning "through pre-draft, preparation, drafts, and revisions based on instructor's advice and classmates' comments."
  • Games and Simulations: The implementation of learning games and training simulations are two more strategies that encourage students to learn through their mistakes. Games usually include the potential for layers of both success and failure, and are becoming increasingly popular. Research published last year in the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations indicates that while game-based "experiences of failure" may frustrate students, they can also lead to learning through a student's "increased motivation to try a different strategy." Simulators, which may incorporate game-like features, are also used in a wide range of fields from aviation to nursing, to provide low-risk opportunities for learners to fail, and learn from the mistakes leading to that failure, before moving into higher-risk training and work environments.

Making it Meaningful

It's the process of learning from failure that is important to keep in mind, and the need to achieve passing grades cannot be dismissed. The design of course activities and assessments could establish ways for students to learn from mistakes. Making mistakes isn't the goal, but creating an opportunity for learning from those that do happen can be powerful. This takes extra effort to accomplish – it's more than just acknowledging that a mistake occurred.

  • Reflection: What would you have done differently? What will you do differently next time? These questions are often part of reflective learning activities. Writing it all down can help and is not a new idea in education as journaling assignments have made their way to blogs. A guide for student reflective writing from Edith Cowan University, available on the Learning Objects Community site, highlights potential uses of blogs, portfolios, and journals that help students "indicate areas of particular difficulty or interest, learning preferences, breakthroughs and set-backs" encountered in their own work.
  • Feedback: Instructional designer Fiona Quigs observes that "Shining light on failure actually changes it into a feedback process." Sometimes we know we did something wrong, but figuring out the details can elude us without some support. Classmates and instructors can help to make sense of what went wrong, when, and how, so that improved strategies are developed and implemented in the next draft.
  • Correction: Steven Parker, in his criticism of the "cult of failure" in the business world, clarifies that experiencing failure isn't the point. "You have to learn from failure, and apply what you learn to the next attempt. If you don't, then there's no path leading from repeated failures to success." Taking action to improve your work, based on your reflection on the experience and feedback received, is critical to learning from mistakes. 

From my perspective, the classroom – online or on-ground – is the place for experimentation as a kind of proving ground where mistakes are analyzed and improved upon as the learner advances in the course. It's not as acceptable when you get to the workplace, where the culture may be quite different, there is an expectation for success, and there's more at stake in terms of resources and reputation. If a class project doesn't go well, the ramifications aren't on the same level as working with a client, for example, as a representative of your employer. College courses can foster learning from mistakes in a low-risk environment where resources and support are in place to propel us forward.

Think about mistakes you've made and failures you have overcome in your school and work life. How important have these experiences been for your learning and skill development? How have others played a role in helping you learn from your mistakes?

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