The best students actually love it when they fail

Man falling off skateboard after difficult move. He will learn more from this experience than if he'd succeeded.

The best students know that they learn the most from failing. They don’t try to fail, and they don’t love failure. But they love the learning opportunity that comes from failure. Don’t get me  wrong, the best students try to succeed, yet they take many more learning risks than students who value safety more than growth.

The failure paradox

This article is based on several composite students from a learning-to-learn course that I helped facilitate, and that Dan Apple designed and led. Within the course, we dealt with multiple challenges, spending much of our time helping students overcome fear of failure and failure to learn from failure. Students want to do a good job, to not fail, but paradoxically need to fail to make the most progress.

Middle-class Nathalie

Nathalie came from a middle-class family. She hated to fail. From fear, she worked harder than most other students and often did very well. But she dreaded assignments. She put them off because her high standards made her miserable.

Not able to take it any more, Nathalie talked to her friends who told her to quit trying so hard. She started playing it safe. She didn’t take any more math or any other courses she found difficult. She made excuses for her perceived weaknesses.

As a result, she polished what she was already good at, and became a stronger writer. But she still played it safe. And she didn’t branch out. She lost her love of school. When Nathalie came to us, she had dropped out of college, but was resolved to get back in school and finish up.

Nathalie had developed a safe achiever identity.

In our course, Nathalie learned how to learn from failure, and came out near the top of all students. She re-enrolled and is on track to graduate. Importantly, she reports she has lost her fear of failure, gained a love of learning, and works an appropriate vs. insane amount of time on her courses.

First-generation Tom

Tom was the first in his family to go to college. Like Nathalie, Tom was bright. College, however, requires learning skills that Tom didn’t have. He started well enough, but soon ran into failure. Insecure of his abilities, he didn’t want to waste any more money on college and quit after a disappointing first semester with a C average. When Tom ran into failure, he folded, and worse, told himself he just wasn’t college material.

Tom’s girlfriend convinced him to try to go back to college. Tom’s advisor remembered and  encouraged him. He was willing to take a learning-to-learn course, but had his doubts.

Tom had assumed the identity of a non-achiever.

Tom did very well in the learning-to-learn course, and was re-admitted to college, where he is persisting through challenges with a you can’t hold me back mentality, his advisor reports.

A failed attempt to dry clothes results in a person falling into a larger dryer but will improve the next time


My personal encounter with failure

I personally had my own challenges when learning to program at the hardware level, that I drew on to help Nathalie and Tom. My degree in computer science required a course on assembly language programming, but whereas I had done well enough in other courses with little effort, this one was different. I did so poorly on the first exam and early projects that I mathematically could not pass, so I dropped the course. But I loved programming and computer science and re-enrolled the next spring, but this time my entire semester was going poorly (for many reasons), and I dropped out of school.

A summer working at McDonalds taught me that I wanted to get back into college and I re-enrolled. The same course awaited. This time, I arranged my life, gritted my teeth, and threw myself into the course projects. Each time I made mistakes, I sought help from Dr. Calhoun and persevered. I finished strongly in that course, but I don’t remember now what else I took that term. More learning occurred because of that course and my failures than anything else that happened in my undergraduate program.

I developed the identity of a determined achiever, unwilling to quit and willing to do what I needed to push forward.

Learning to love learning from failure

Let’s be honest. Nobody loves to fail. We can learn to not fear it, and because of being brave, embrace failure when it happens. Let’s see how.

Failure comes in many shades and not just black and white. We can analyze failure for what worked and what could be stronger. Embracing failure means:

  1. Don’t let it freak you out. You are not your performance.  You understand that learning happens best from failure and effort; this mindset is called a growth mindset and is opposite the alternative fixed mindset.
  2. You may have a coach (not an evaluator) who is genuinely interested in your growth and will help you figure out how to do better. This skillset is called, well, coaching, in athletics; in education, we call it assessment for improvement, and your coach may also be called an assessor.
  3. You have the skills to do a performance post mortem to separate what went well and what could go even better from what was random or circumstantial, such as a slick spot of mud in the high jump area. Educators refer to these skills as self-assessment. You also have the skill to implement a growth plan to improve.
  4. You have the experience you need to value failure for the growth that comes from a sincere but less-than-perfect effort to do well. As a result you are willing to take greater risks when learning. You might even try the 7 foot high jump, and when you eat the high bar and land awkwardly on the mat, you don’t notice because you’re busy analyzing how you could improve and be ready to take the risk again.
  5. You engage in repeated testing by doing challenging performances (risk taking) that is spread out over time, because it creates stronger and more durable learning. See the excellent book,  Make it Stick.

We need all 5 parts of embracing failure to get the best from any learning situation.

Man falling of paddle board will learn to do better by analyzing his experience.

Failure accelerates learning

Consider what happens when, like Nathalie, we play it safe. We select less challenging learning goals. If we achieve them (not failthen we haven’t learned as much as we could. Worse, because we haven’t failed, our brains haven’t worked as hard to make durable memories. The brain must be stretched, challenged, and reminded of the need to grow.

On the other hand, when we stretch ourselves by taking learning risks, we are likely to learn more, even when we fail, because there’s more room to achieve, and we seldom fail completely. We can improve any performance by building on its strengths.

One caution: taking too large a risk will exceed our capabilities so much, that we could fail completely, so it’s better to stay in the zone of appropriate challenge, otherwise known as the zone of proximal development.

Nothing succeeds like failure.

Next Steps

The ability to learn from failure and not become demotivated depends on having a growth mindset and the tools to turn mistakes into learning opportunities. The post Are you learning the slow way? 6 Steps and 4 Elements to PowerUp Learning & Performance covers this skill, as does this more light-humored one: Educational Vampires — PowerUp to Protect Yourself and Loved Ones.

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  • Dan Apple and the Academy of Process Educators have explored learning assessment for thirty years. See or
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (1 edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.
  • Dryer Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash
  • Surf Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash
  • Skateboard Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash

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