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Helping students learn from failure
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In the days before learning management systems, my students would take exams in class and submit hard copies of their assignments. I would write carefully crafted comments on these documents before returning them to the students in class. Some students would read my comments immediately. Some students would tuck their papers into their book or notebook, and I would fool myself into thinking that each of these students would give my comments careful consideration when they were in a quiet place and could give my comments the attention they deserved. And some students would toss the papers into the trashcan on their way out the door at the end of class—my carefully crafted comments never so much as even glanced at. Now in the age of course management systems, my carefully crafted comments are digital. I cannot see if my students are reading my comments or not, but I am confident that the percentages are not all the different from the days of paper.
I can see why students would read their professors’ comments, because I was that type of student. I did well in school, so if I missed a question or didn’t earn a perfect score on a paper, I wanted to know why.
What to make of those students who don’t read their professors’ comments, who toss their papers in the trash? I made a they-don’t-care-about-school attribution and gave it no more thought.
And then some years ago Roddy Roediger pointed out that students who found taking the test or writing the paper aversive were disinclined to revisit the experience. In other words, if they hated doing the test/paper in the first place, why would they want to spend even more time thinking about it? That was a true “doh!” moment for me. If I really wanted students to learn from their mistakes, I was going to have to provide an incentive for revisiting these aversive events. To that end, I began using an assignment wrapper (this earlier blog post describes what I do).
This is not the only time I’ve thought about failure—or, more generally, about being wrong. Author Adam Grant told a story about giving a talk and having Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman who was in the audience come up to him afterward and say, “That was wonderful. I was wrong.” (See a longer description of Grant and Kahneman’s interaction and my thoughts on it in this blog post.)
With all of that floating around in my head, I read Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach’s (2022) Perspectives on Psychological Science article on learning from failure. They argue that there are two big reasons we tend not to learn from failure: emotional and cognitive. The emotional reason is that we want to feel good about ourselves. As a general rule, reflecting on where we have gone wrong does not tend to produce happy feelings about ourselves, therefore we prefer not to engage in such reflection. There appear to be two cognitive reasons why it is hard for us to learn from failure. Confirmation bias causes us to look for information that aligns with our view of ourselves as a person who is correct. We focus on all of the times when we have been correct and dismiss the times when we have been incorrect. The second reason is that it is cognitively easier to learn from our successes than our failures. When we succeed, we can simply say, “Let’s do that again.” When we fail, we have to figure out why we failed and then develop a different course of action. That takes much more effort.
Based on their summary of why learning from failure is hard, Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach have some suggestions on how to encourage others—in this case, our students—to learn from failure. Of course, I don’t mean failure defined as scoring below standard on an assessment. I mean failure in a more general sense, such as missing items on an exam or losing points on an assignment.
First, let’s look at their suggested interventions designed to counter emotional barriers to learning from failure.
- Rather than having to address our own failures, we can observe and learn from the failures of others. Instructors who go over the most commonly missed exam questions in class, for example, are taking this approach. When giving instructions for an assignment, some instructors will create an example with many common errors and then ask students to work in small groups to identify the errors.
- Creating some emotional distance between ourselves and our failures can help us look at our failures more objectively. One strategy would be to ask myself “Why did Sue fail?” rather than ask “Why did I fail?” While I can see why that would work in theory, I’m having a hard time picturing how to explain it to students in such a way that would minimize eyerolling.
- Asking students to give advice to other students can help students learn from their failure while at the same time turning the failure into a source of strength. For example, immediately following receiving exam scores, ask students to take a minute to reflect on what they did in studying for the test that worked well and what they would do differently next time. Ask them to write their advice—just a couple sentences—in whatever format is easiest for you to collect. For example, you could distribute blank index cards for students to write on, collect the cards, shuffle them, and then redistribute them. If you’d like to screen them first, collect the cards, read them, and then redistribute the next class session. Or you can make this an online class discussion where the initial post is the student’s advice.
- Remind students that they have abilities and skills, that their education is important to them (commitment), and that they have expertise. Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach tell us that experts have an easier time learning from failure than do novices. Experts are committed to being experts in their field. To be an expert, they know that they have abilities and skills, but to get even better, they have to be able to learn from failure. Perhaps this is one reason it is easier for Daniel Kahneman to accept being wrong—every time he is, he learns something new and is now even more of an expert than he was before. While our students may not (yet) be Nobel Prize winners, they do have reading, study, and social skills that they can build on.
- Remind students that they are not born with knowing psychology, chemistry, math, history, or whatever, nor are they born knowing how to write or how to study. Knowledge and skills are learned. You probably recognized this as fostering a growth mindset.
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach also have five suggested interventions that address cognitive barriers to learning from failure.
- Being explicit about how failure can help us learn can reduce the cognitive effort to learn from failure. For example, if your course includes a comprehensive final, point out to students that if they take a look at the questions they missed on this exam, they can learn the correct information now, and that will reduce how much time they need to study for the final. While this may seem obvious to instructors, to students who are succumbing to confirmation bias and cognitive miserliness, it may not occur to them that reviewing missed questions will save them time in the long run.
- We seem to have an easier time learning from failure when our failure involves the social domain. “An adult who loses track of time and misses a meeting with friends may tune in and learn more from this failure than an adult who loses track of time and misses a train” (Eskreis-Winkler & Fishbach, 2022, p. 1517). I wonder if a jigsaw classroom, small group discussions, or study groups would address this. If a student is accountable to others, are they more likely to learn from their errors? It’s an interesting question.
- If having enough cognitive bandwidth is a barrier to learning from failure, then providing time in class for students to learn from failure may be time well spent. When I gave in-class multiple choice exams, students would take the test themselves first. After they submitted their completed bubble sheets, they got a new bubble sheet, and students would answer the same questions again, but this time it was open note, open book, and an open free-for-all discussion. The individual test was worth 50 points, and the wide-open test was worth 10 points. So much learning happened in that wide-open test that if I were to go back to multiple-choice tests, I’d make the wide-open test worth 25 points. Most students discussed and debated the answers to the questions. Even the students who were not active participants were active listeners. While the students hadn’t received their exam scores back yet, I’d hear students say, “AH! I missed that one!” They were learning from their failures—and in a socially supportive atmosphere.
- The more practice we have at a skill, the fewer cognitive resources we need to devote to it, and so the easier it is to learn from our failures. One approach would be to encourage students to add tools to their study skills toolbox. The LearningScientists.org study posters are a great place for students to start. The more tools they have, the easier it will be for them to choose the best one for what they are learning. By analogy, if all they have in their toolbox is a hammer, that hammer will work great when a hammer is called for. But if they have a situation that calls for a screwdriver or pliers, they might be able to make the hammer work, but it will take much more effort and the outcomes will not be that great. Picture hammering in a screw. Once students are well-practiced at using a number of different study skills, it will be easier for them to see where a particular study skill did not serve them well for a particular kind of test. What they learn from their failure, perhaps, is to implement a different study skill.
- We can work to create a culture that accepts failure as a way to learn. This can be a challenge with students who have been indoctrinated to see failure as a reflection on who they are as human beings. Standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, and ungrading are all strategies for embracing failure as an opportunity to learn. In each case, students do the work and then continue to revise until a defined bar has been reached. In these approaches, failure is not a final thing; it is merely information one learns from. Of the instructors I’ve known who have tried one of these techniques, the biggest challenge seems to come from students who have a hard time grasping a grading system that is not point based.
Being able to learn from failure is a lifelong skill that will serve our students well. If you try any of these strategies, be explicit about why. And then tell students that in their next job interview when they are asked about their greatest strength, their greatest strength may very well be learning from failure. It’s the rare employer who would not love hearing that.
Eskreis-Winkler, L., & Fishbach, A. (2022). You think failure is hard? So is learning from it. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(6), 1511–1524. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211059817
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