Failure is an Option: Helping Students Learn from Mistakes

Failure is one of the best teachers. Most of what I learned about home maintenance I learned from my mistakes. The military understands the benefits of failure and actually gives soldiers tasks that they know will lead to failure at some point as a part of their training. Similarly, pilots are trained on simulators and given a variety of emergency situations until they fail.

But instead of using failure as a valuable teaching tool, education discourages it as, well, a sign of failure. A student is measured at various points along a course on how well they have mastered the material. Since each assignment is graded based on its proximity to success, and the final grade is determined by the aggregate of each individual grade, failure is preserved and carried with the student throughout the course. The result is that students become failure-adverse, demoralized by failure, and focused more on the grade than the education.

One way to reverse this trend is by using gaming in education. Students who fail in video games do not suffer the same blow to their self-esteem as those who receive a low grade on an exam or report card. They simply try it again. I’ve previously written about this topic in the article What Games Teach Us about Learning.

We must also rethink the purpose of grading itself. Too many teachers have the “apple sorting” view of grading as a process of separating the good students from the poor students. But consider the conversation that I had with a teacher many years ago. I had just started teaching at a college and was told that this particular teacher was widely considered the best in the school, as well as the toughest. Stopping at his office one day I asked him about his reputation as both the best and toughest teacher in the school. I made the comment that he must not give many A’s, but he responded by saying that everyone in his class gets an A.

I asked him how this could square with this reputation for toughness. He replied that when a student hands in a paper he is given comments and told to rewrite it, and must rewrite it over and over until it is an A-quality paper. Only then it is accepted.

This story proves wrong the view that low grades are a sign of rigor. This teacher expects great work of his students and requires them to keep working to improve the paper until it reaches that level.

We learn to write by making mistakes and correcting our mistakes. Teachers who hand back an assignment with comments and a grade only encourage students to leaf through to the grade and store it away. Expecting them to correct their failures is genuine education.

Consider how to incorporate failure into your teaching in order to generate success.

As usual, I encourage your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage on the blog

Vocab Sushi: A vocabulary builder that provides a great example of a game for higher education.

Parade of games in PowerPoint: Dianne Jones’ wonderful collection of free game templates that can be used by any teacher.

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. B.Ott

    I'm wondering how to avoid having students slack off on assignments, if they know they will always get a chance to fix it.

    1. m unate

      That's a good point but I guess even the slackers would have to step up at some point and make those corrections so that they can finally receive the grade.

      1. guest

        I've done this with students and I have modified grading. They can either do it correctly the first time and get an A/B or they have to do it again but the highest grade is an 77%. Once students see that they can do better, they often switch their mode of thinking and try to do their best the first time. However, it more fair to those students that do the work correctly the first time around to get honor roll but allows students the opportunity to keep from failing a class.

    2. Bristol Comm College

      I have done a modified adaption of this method for many years now– requiring a mandatory re-write (one time) of all papers. I return extensive content comments and even model actual format/grammar corrections for a few pages. No grade is given for Version #1, but their Version #2 re-write is the graded paper. Most (not all) students seem to like having a required re-write and they tell me all the time how helpful it is. Occasionally I will have a few students who need 3 submissions as their Version #1 might be substandard enough for me not to even provide the extensive feedback. When this happens, I give general recommendations for improvement and do not count that original Version #1 against them. Thus some students end up doing 3 versions.

  2. @xlsguru

    This has been evident in my students' reflection papers. Thank you for this validation.

  3. @brocansky

    More than ever, we need creative, out of the box thinkers in our society who can design and implement fresh solutions to age old problems. In other words, we need innovators. Failure is part of innovating. And empowering students to learn from mistakes during their college learning career is one, albeit small, important step in the right direction.

    And I'd take that one step further and argue that, more than ever, we need professors to be taking risks in the classroom. Colleges and universities need to be crafting a culture of innovation that not inspires and rewards professors to try new teaching approaches (like using games, mobile apps, QR codes, phones, etc. for learning). How many professors can celebrate the idea of failing in front of a group of students — we have a long way to go but it's an important journey.

    "I failed my way to success." – Thomas Edison

  4. John Orlando

    Internet startups in Silicon Valley have a saying:

    "Fail Faster"

    The marketing director of Google once went to one of the founder's offices to report that she made a mistake which cost the company millions. On the way out the founder told her "I'm glad you made that mistake. It shows that you are taking risks, and I want you to take risks."


  5. Karen

    Of course we are allowed to fail! Divorce or being fired are almost always the result of either whole llong series of failures, or one monumental, huge, screw-up on something OBVIOUSLY wrong (right, arnie?). It's this kind of black-and-white thinking that creates the anxiety, and it scares me to think there are teachers who encourage students to believe the 'real world' is like that!

  6. Karen

    The most helpful, I think, is to allow students to fail on small stuff (especially when they resoundingly deserve it!) as a way to learn how NOT to fail on the big stuff. Also, using their failures and mistakes as, cliched as it is, learning opportunities. WHY did this not work, what can you do differently next time? Could failure have been avoided, or was there insufficient info, random factors, etc that are out of our control ('real life' is full of those, and we have to learn to deal with them).

  7. Paul Mitchell

    As usual John, some very provocative and counter-intuitive thinking on the role of grading. I work at at a military college for mid-grade officers; the idea of failure is an anathema, akin to losing a battle. As a sci-fi nerd, however, I have always liked the example of the Kobyashi Maru simulation from the Wrath of Khan. At work I have argued that it is better to fail in Toronto than in Kabul. As the military confronts the complex social problems of stability operations in failed and fragile states, where we are asking them to do social engineering rather than winning battles, my students need to learn how to fail, recover, reassess, and engage once more. While the praxis of traditional military operations cannot tolerate failure, contemporary operations demands an open attitude towards failure as planners feel their way through the complexity of the problem set. Thanks again for your insights.

  8. jackehill

    Learning from failure assumes you have also experienced success. I appreciate your point yet feel this is not the last word on the topic. I have seen some people crushed by failure because there was no support for striving for future success. This is a difficult topic.

  9. Alan Stange

    I keep hearing about the dire consequences of failure in the workplace and how students in primary and secondary school should be either trained to avoid failure or "toughened" to the shock they will inevitably face. Who has not failed in the workplace and how often have we observed people correct their mistakes independently or with assistance. The reality is failure is a part of our personal and public lives. Most failures are correctable and are not significantly penalized. Too much is misrepresented to students about the world of work I think. There is a degree of hypocrisy in this penalty for failure message to young people. Spectacular examples of failure given a generous do-over abound in our society. Banks, auto manufacturers, government promises and programs, athletes, and the list goes on. Our real message to students might be, "You're neither powerful enough, nor deemed important enough to be punished for your failure. I'm an adult and your teacher. I self-manage my teaching and management failures in the classroom. Your learning management failures cannot be corrected."

  10. Atul Gopal

    Very insightful article – overwhelmed by the simplicity of the suggestion that teachers are not working enough on students to help them improve. As a teacher for the last 15 years, I stand guilty of not having done enough for my students. In hindsight, it seems almost a crime to have let thousands of students that I have taught get away with substandard work.

    Technology can be of help here. With softwares like e-raters can easily help improve grammar, we can also have a preliminary idea evaluation and comment made by database matching programs.

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