The Value of Failure in the Classroom

I am competitive in just about every facet of my life.  From participating in silly games during pep rallies to coaching athletes as a football and soccer coach, I want to win all of the time.  I don’t do well with losing and it has taken me most of my 35 years on this earth to be okay with “just doing your best is good enough.” Now that I’ve got a six year old son playing soccer and a four year old daughter taking ballet classes, I find myself biting my tongue from time to time and reassuring them (and myself) that ‘just having fun’ and ‘being a good teammate’ is what’s most important.  Before children, I would’ve never considered any objective superior to winning, no matter the challenge.

While I suspect many out there are not as competitive as myself, I do believe most are not comfortable with failure.  It doesn’t feel good. It can be embarrassing. In the classroom, it can make one feel intellectually inferior to others and cast doubt on one’s ability to perform.  That can be a tough pill to swallow and, like someone refusing to go to the doctor’s office for fear of a diagnosis, might be avoided at all costs. “If the doctor doesn’t tell me I’ve got the flu, then I don’t have the flu” is easily translated in the classroom to “if I don’t answer these practice questions and do poorly, then I don’t know that I don’t know this information.”  It is a somewhat convoluted line of thinking, but I believe many would rather bury their head in the sand than face the truth.

I work daily in my classroom to defeat this thinking.  I want students to appreciate that questioning their level of understanding is all part of the process.  And if, during that questioning, they discover they don’t completely comprehend a term’s meaning or concept because they incorrectly answered a few questions, that is certainly okay.  Actually, it’s better than okay. Now they have information and can adjust their studying/practicing because of this self-assessment and feedback.

“You’d rather find out now that you don’t know the material than find out on the test that you don’t know it…because it’s too late at that point.”

Through regular (pretty much daily) formative assessment of information presented either the previous lesson, week, or month, (think spaced practice) I try to make the word ‘assessment’ a household name and its findings part of the learning process.  It is a constant conversation in my classroom that I hope influences how my students study/practice in all of their classes.  It is a bit of a paradigm shift for students and teachers alike to think of assessment less as a final product and more as an indicator of learning along the way.  When you add in conveying to students that occasional failure may be part of the process, it takes regular practice to become more accustomed to and comfortable with the process…but it’s worth it.  Retrieval practice is more effective as a study/practice strategy than simple rereading or highlighting, even though the attempts at retrieval may lead to failure.  The connections and memories of what you were able retrieve will be even stronger and what you cannot retrieve will confirm what needs to be further explained or researched.   

A few clarifications:

  1. I’m not saying failure has to be part of the learning process.  Students don’t have to fail to be able to learn something. I see that argument posed during edchats from time-to-time.  Can you imagine how time consuming that would be from a cognitive standpoint if you had to get something wrong before you could get it right?  Brutal.
  2. While I want students to be comfortable with getting some questions wrong (failure) during formative assessment, I don’t want that to become students being okay with failing summative assessments.  There is a difference between assessment as learning (formative assessment, in this case) and assessment as final evaluation of material (summative assessment).

What practices do you use in your classroom use assessment and failure for learning?


6 thoughts on “The Value of Failure in the Classroom

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  1. Great article as always! My strategies are based on advice from the experts. Use 5 quick questions on material we have just covered or slightly further back. Students to discuss the logic of their answers in targeted Q&A where all participate. I have experimented with google forms in which you can create a quiz which self marks! This has been very useful too. To summarize, retrieval practice has been a big game changer I just wish more teachers would adopt this for greater consistency!!

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