Blog

Learning to Learn from Failure

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Yesterday’s post on Education Unbound  focused on how teachers can better support student learning by embracing, encouraging, and supporting failure in the classroom. This might seem shocking to students who don’t want their instructors to be rooting for them to fail, but we are not talking about catastrophic, epic failure, but rather the kinds of small setbacks that encourage learning. What does that mean and how can you, as a student "fail" and still be successful in your educational goals?

Learning from Your Mistakes
We all make mistakes. I once decided that I would be better served by writing on an exam that the professor’s questions about the history of Native American cultures were irrelevant and proceeded to write a long treatise on the current state of indigenous affairs in the U.S. The "D" I received on that exam is a fair indication that I made a rather significant mistake. But did I learn from my mistake? Absolutely. I learned to play the education game a little better, and I learned that I have a passion for Native American affairs that I hadn’t previously realized. I later turned much of the content of that essay into a portion of a course on "Toxic Literacies" that I taught to incoming freshman.

That was, however, a hard-on-the-GPA lesson to learn. I am not advocating radical/stupid failure just to make a point, but rather acknowledging that you will make mistakes and that you should consciously learn from them. When you find yourself on the wrong side of success in the classroom, what should you do to remedy the situation and turn it to your advantage? Here are some strategies for ensuring  that your failures make you a success.

Embrace Metacognition
Metacognition is the process of thinking about your thinking. That may sound convoluted, but it makes sense if you take a step back and think about it for a moment. Rather than just accept that you got something wrong, think about why you got it wrong. Take an academic failure for example and ask yourself these questions:

  • Was this a mistake you make repeatedly? If so, is that due to some knowledge or information deficiency you have, that you might be able to remedy?
  • Did you get it wrong because it is the first time you have ever seen a problem like this? Would practice with similar problems or tasks help build the skills you need?
  • Did you not make a serious effort to solve the problem, complete the assignment, or study the material? If not, why not? Be honest with yourself. That is the only way to really uncover why the failure happened.
  • Was there a problem with the test, task, or problem that confused you or made the process of succeeding unnecessarily difficult? If so, do you understand the underlying concepts or skills and can you demonstrate them on other tasks?

Thinking clearly and honestly about why you failed at something is the first step in learning from it. If you are unwilling to take a good hard look at your own actions and culpability in your failure, you are unlikely to learn from it. Avoid the temptation to blame others for your shortcomings, you can’t control them, but you can do things to make yourself better.  Once you have examined why you think you failed, you are ready to take the next step in learning from the experience – ask the professor for help.

Ask for Help
Contrary to what some students believe, faculty members are there to help you learn. Not just in the lecture hall or lab, but in their offices, the academic quad, or campus coffee shops. More importantly, they want to help you learn. Most of them sit in their office hours and rarely see any students except the ones who are already doing well in their classes. The ones they want to see, however, are the ones who need their help the most.

Once you have a handle on why you are having problems in a class, and if those problems can be overcome by gaining additional clarification from the instructor, or through some focused tutoring on the topic. Contact the professor to schedule an appointment to talk about your deficiencies and how he or she can help you overcome them. It is important to realize that, regardless of any perceived lack of clarity on the part of the faculty member, it is your job to learn the material and succeed. Do not blame them for your failure, regardless of what you think the cause may be.

Ask well-targeted questions that help you address the specific issues that you addressed when you thought through your reasons for failing. Talk about studying strategies, alternative sources for the course information, tutoring, or ask for help filling in gaps in your knowledge. Remember, the professor is there to help you, and you should be thankful for their time and consideration. By doing this you are not only getting help with the immediate problem, but also learning how to become and independent learner who seeks help and interacts with those who can assist them. This is also an excellent way to establish a relationship with faculty members who you may consider asking for professional references in the future.

Explore Alternative Paths to Success
This is the one unconventional piece of advice in this post. If you realize that you are having problems because of a failure to make a concerted effort, or because you are having problems understanding core concepts, and asking the instructor for assistance has not helped or isn’t working, consider going outside the normal channels for assistance.
One realistic possibility is that you might have a specific problem learning some types of information. You might consider visiting your student support services office if you are encountering problems with a specific type of learning. They can help diagnose your particular disability and suggest ways of being successful with it.

If you feel that the presentation of the information simply is not a good match for the way you learn best, consider other sources of learning. There is a wealth of information available online and you can find an alternative presentation of almost any course content in online texts, videos, or even interactive tutorials. You just have to look.

The truly radical option here is to step way outside of the box and craft an alternative way to demonstrate your understanding to the faculty member. If you are constantly failing at writing papers for a class but love to make movies, ask the instructor if you can create a short film in place of the final paper. Perhaps a computer animation of the motion of molecules in a particular atom might be an acceptable outcome in a science class? You will never know if some alternative assessment might be possible if you don’t ask. Worst case is they will say "no" and you are back where you started. Best case is that they say "yes," you wow the professor with what you show them and they see you as a motivated, creative individual whom they are happy to support in future endeavors.

Failing to Learn is the Only Real Failure
All of these suggestions are predicated on one thing – you need to accept failure as a positive experience that helps you grow. If you can examine your shortcomings with some objectivity, you will begin to position yourself to not only overcome them, but to develop lifelong habits of addressing your failings that will make you much more successful in the long run. As Dale Carnegie once said, "Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success."

Share your failures and what you learned from them with me on Google+ or Twitter.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net