Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Teaching Our Students to Fail

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Teaching Our Students to Fail

Article excerpt

"The greatest teacher, failure is."

If Yoda says it, it must be worth spending some time thinking about.

I also hear this message when I listen to successful entrepreneurs. They say that failure leads to innovation and is critical to their ultimate success.

Thomas Edison is said to have admitted to a thousand failed attempts to make the light bulb before getting it right in 1879.

"Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently," he said. One could argue that the greatness of the United States of America was founded on overcoming failure.

However, in some ways, the academic system is rigged against allowing students the opportunity to try new things and fail. Why? And how can we change that?

An excellent student at Adelphi University, where I am an assistant professor of physics, participated in a joint STEM partnership program with another university. To maintain participation in this program, along with a scholarship, this student had to maintain at least a 3.3 GPA and get a B or higher in almost all of his classes.

This student had a bad test--one bad test--and it dropped his grade below a B. His scholarship nearly disappeared, along with his participation in this program, which he saw as his whole future. The student was crushed.

I had to ask myself, how is the world a better place now that this brilliant young student is walking around feeling like a complete failure because of one B-minus? He earned his way into this program. In a single day, he had lost nearly everything he earned.

Tying opportunities exclusively to grade point encourages students to focus on the worst parts of academia: test taking for testing's sake, selecting the easiest professors, even blatant cheating--just to maintain a GPA.

So this is my request to all of us in higher education: Let's give students the opportunity to fail. In fact, let's teach them how to fail because failure may be one of the best ways we can teach a student to succeed.

Our students should have the room to learn from small mistakes, before they get out into the post-college world and make big ones. One of the hardest things to teach an elite student is that research is about learning from unsuccessful ideas and having the boldness to develop new ideas. These are exactly the qualities we need for innovation. At my institution, we have focused on a number of different approaches to give students "second chances."

I sometimes have upperclassmen lead discussion sections for my Physics 101 course. In one instance, a student made a serious mistake while leading the class. …

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