Failure is Always an Option

“Failure” is a bad word in our culture, but every teacher knows that students learn by making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Its the reason that students don’t learn much from watching us solve a problem correctly on the board – the most important skill is not just knowing how to solve a problem correctly, it’s also knowing how NOT to solve it incorrectly. Unfortunately we as educators tend to perpetuate this fear of failing by deducting points when students get wrong answers.

How many of you have seen a student unwilling to even start a problem unless they know how to solve it? I know I struggle getting students to start a problem by drawing a sketch and listing knowns until they have some idea how to reach the end of the problem.  I think we need to teach our students that failing is part of learning and that what really matters is what they do when they fail.

Let me preface what I am saying applied to College education and not necessarily K-12.  I think we need to let students know it is okay to fail a class.  I admit that it can delay graduation and make them run up more loans, but it is better to learn how to fail in college than waiting until they are on-the-job.  I should mention that every single student I’ve had who failed a LOBA class and who came back for a second try has taken the class seriously, worked hard, and passed the course.  Of course this is still a small sample of students, but it is the lesson that I want them to learn.  There are some students that don’t (or haven’t) retaken the course after failing.

I used to fell horrible giving a student an F.  I was afraid students would feel like failures and I didn’t want to do anything to discourage them.  I’m shifting my perspective and trying to convince my students and my colleagues that an F isn’t a Bad Thing, it is just an assessment of how well a student mastered the material in my course.  An F doesn’t mean a student is stupid or unable to learn anything, only that they didn’t master the material this time.

It is okay to fail.  There should be no stigma associated with failing.  The only Bad Thing is failing and then not taking advantage of the experience to learn.  Encourage your students to fail and learn from it.

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2 Responses to Failure is Always an Option

  1. Craig Sutton says:

    I think this applies not only to failing a class, but also to individual units and concepts. Students need to fail or they don’t really learn anything. Failure reveals misunderstandings and misconceptions. I also beleive they need a chance to learn from their mistakes and improve their learning. I have created a learning cycle that includes learning new concepts, problem solving practice, assessment and feedback. Repeat as needed. Students get feedback on their progress and a chance to retry to show their learning.

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