Using Failure As A Friendly Tool For Learning

Current grading policies at most schools are intended to measure learning, but they are counterproductive in that they actually inhibit learning.

Taking a typical university mathematics course as an example, students might have a handful of assignments, a mid-term test, and a final exam. The number of graded items is small because universities are strapped for resources, and they can’t afford to grade more student work. There is also an issue of professor workload, as creating assignments takes work. (I realize that online quizzes are gaining in popularity, but they are not yet typical. And online quizzes share a problem with many assignment problems: The latter are often of the technical variety, because graders are often assistants with little capacity to judge higher levels of thinking.)

Because the number of graded items is so small, because grades are all-important, and therefore students are under a lot of pressure to achieve high grades, students typically spend an enormous amount of time on these small number of items. However, this is a poor way to learn mathematics; one rather ought to spend a lot of time on a large number of different exercises and problems, together with reading the textbook and reading around the subject.

It does no good to complain that students ought to have better time-management skills and should be doing all that is needed for effective learning as a matter of course. Most of them have not been prepared to be good learners by their high-school experience, and there is little in the university experience that trains them to be effective learners, particularly in first-year, when they need the most attention. Placing students in classes of 500, talking at them for a few hours per week, and then placing them under severe time constraints and pressuring them to perform on just a few tests is not conducive to good learning. The current system of undergraduate education does very little to train students, only samples their panicky attempts to keep their heads above water.

Rather than blame students, we need to look at the goals of our education system. If we are to train a generation of highly creative problem solvers that will help to move humanity off the path to destruction, then the current system is entirely inadequate. The current system, which assumes that students are doing the right things and then merely samples the results, has nothing to do with training and everything to do with throwing students into the deep end and seeing who sinks and who swims.

The ills of our education system are multifarious, but they are well-signified by our typical grading philosophy. Students are heavily penalized for making mistakes, which inhibits effective learning and promotes fear and anxiety. Students should be guided towards creating something of value that is of interest to them; in going through the creative process a number of times, students will master their own good creative habits, and will learn to value mistakes as an essential part of the process, rather than be paralyzed in fear.

The natural learning process involves playful exploration, which is not supported by our current typical learning environments; they rather encourage obedience. In a system that supports playful exploration, mistakes and failures would be treated honestly for what they are: essential elements of the learning process. Instead, students view them as permanent black marks on their records, which might as well be labels that are cruelly tattooed onto their skins.

It’s high time that we trained students to use mistakes and outright failures as friends … as friendly tools that aid the ultimate success of our plans. A number of recent articles highlight this theme; consider, for example, Please Don’t Focus on Failure, by Matthew E. May (hat-tip to Steve Miranda, who directs a school (PSCS) that focuses on creating a safe environment for students to “identify, cultivate, and express their passions”).

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)