Trial and Error Opens Up New Possibilities: CETLA Excellence in Teaching Theme for Summer 2 Term

By Wendy Trevor, PhD, Executive Director
Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Assessment (CETLA)

This past academic year instructional faculty worked diligently to ensure effective teaching in support of the College’s standards of excellence and its strategic teaching and learning objective. To aid this end, in Faculty Connects we contemplated three of the four pillars of teaching excellence identified at the Academic Affairs Retreat in September, most recently, the importance of promoting “outside of the box” thinking. This term we explore the fourth pillar we consider central to a transformative learning experience:  The creation of opportunities within a learning environment where it is safe to test ideas and fail.

The oft-repeated phrase, “Failure is not an option” promulgates the idea that failure is an untoward outcome of an attempt to achieve, the opposite of success.  As educators preparing our adult learners for continued achievement and attainment in the workforce, however, we know that ‘failure’ can often be a by-product of a successful learning experience in that it helps the learner to recognize when something isn’t working and signals a need to change an approach. Trial and error opens up new possibilities and paths while in pursuit of a solution. Writing in Fortune on November 28, 2015 Dr. Tal Schwartz, Chairman and CEO of Clicktale points up some of the more famous examples of people whose lives included ‘failure’ including Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Van Gogh and offers employers the following guidance on attaining success as a company. Schwartz’s suggestion has relevance to learning:

“If you want to run a good company, go ahead and tell those on your team to strive to do their best work. But if you want to run a great company, I dare you to push your staff even further. I dare you to allow them to break through their own boundaries — and the only way to do that is to encourage them to fail (2015).” Source: What Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling Have in Common

The question is how we might create opportunities for students to work through this learning process within our classes given higher education’s product-oriented emphasis in which ‘breaking through’ one’s ‘boundaries’ by taking chances and posing alternative ideas may not always yield a high mark on an assignment. This can be difficult and require a change in the way we help our students define success, but we have other opportunities as well and as we begin the next cycle of course development, course development teams (FPDs, Course developers/SMEs, and Instructional Designers) might consider the following when designing assignments and assessments:

  • Pose discussion questions that encourage exploration and testing of ideas rather than seek a ‘right’ answer.
  • Ensure grading takes into account the development of students’ views as the week progresses rather than penalizes students for an initial post made early in the week that is less informed.
  • Develop lower stakes assessments that carry less weight and/or may be dropped if further into the course mastery is demonstrated.
  • Offer opportunities to repeat quizzes to achieve a better grade and demonstrate development of skills.
  • Provide adaptive learning exercises.
  • Consider building short exercises to foster metacognition such as assignment/essay wrappers in which students are asked to reflect upon their assignment/essay and the feedback received and devise a plan to develop their work going forward.
  • Support students’ testing of their ideas through positive comments.

This list is not exhaustive, but offers some suggestions to create meaningful, enriching and deep learning experiences. Of course we want to see our students succeed and receive the best grade they can in a course, but we also want to encourage them to imagine possibilities and create knowledge and this requires that we provide a safe place in which to test ideas. Let’s flip the idea of failure in support of what James Joyce writes in Ulysses about errors and mistakes: they are “the portals of discovery.”