Let’s learn how to fail!

 In Assessment Lead Programme, Header, Opinion

Have you ever wondered how you can help your students succeed? I’d hazard a guess that you have!

As a teacher in Greece and England, I started thinking how I could support my students to succeed. When I started my MSc in Educational Assessment at Durham University, I studied and contemplated for hours on end the relationships between testing, feedback, learning and students’ success. Feedback has been proven to be a powerful tool to improve students’ outcomes when used appropriately (see the EEF Toolkit for more on this). Moreover, assessments do not have to be merely a way of measuring students’ outcomes at the end of the learning process – in fact, I’d go so far as to say they shouldn’t just be that. They can, and should, actively support students’ learning and progress. There are different ways of using assessment to achieve this end. In this blog, I will focus on only one: how can assessments support learning when the students fail in them?

Prof. Carol Dweck at Stanford University discusses how teachers can support students to cope with failure. (The good news is that you do not have to be a researcher or be able to understand complicated research papers to access her work. In her book ‘Mindset: Changing the Way you think to Fulfil your Potential‘, she analyses the results of all her research in a truly accessible way.) According to Dweck’s now widely-used theory, there are two different types of mindsets. People with a fixed mindset accept that intelligence is a fixed trait. They are afraid of challenges and failure. They believe that a new challenge will reveal an inability or a weakness, which cannot be improved. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset accept that intelligence is not a fixed trait. Instead, they believe in improvement. For them, even failure can be a learning experience. They can be persistent and, through a new challenge, they can discover what they do not know while simultaneously learning for the future.

In one of her talks, Dweck describes an interesting example. A school decided to introduce the grade ‘not yet’ for students who didn’t pass the exams. This grade definitely gives the perspective of a growth mindset. I do not suggest that each and every teacher should use the ‘not yet’ grade, but it is certainly possible for all to support students to face failure in a constructive way.

In this light, when teachers provide feedback, there are many straightforward ways to promote the development of growth mindset in students. Using feedback and praise in the classroom wisely can help students perceive failure as a learning event and a step towards success. On the one hand, if students are successful, their intelligence should not be praised directly as a talent, because this can foster a fixed mindset. In feedback to successful students, it should be explained what the students did well, as well as how they can become better. On the other hand, if students fail an exam, they should not take this failure personally. The feedback should be formal, offering next steps, but shouldn’t be personal, and we must remember that the incident of a failure does not entail future failure. It gives indicators of what did not work well at one time, and what could change and work better in the future.

What is important for every learner to know is that success does not have to – and often does not – come effortlessly. People do not have to get things right from the first time they try them and thus they should not be afraid of trying and failing. Malcolm Gladwell, in ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, discusses how somebody can become successful. He presents many examples of successful people (and students), explaining that success is not a personal story which comes from nothing. It is often derived from great opportunities which were provided to people and is influenced by the environment in which these people live. In the same sense, in my classroom, I endeavoured to give opportunities to students to practise a growth mindset, and to exist in a classroom where feedback which recognises weaknesses is not considered as ‘failure’.

In the same book, Malcolm Gladwell also discusses the 10,000 hours rule (a rule which is based on research of Ericsson). In short, this suggests that a huge amount of time practising a skill can lead to success. At this point, it’s important to say that success isn’t a given at every step along the way during those 10,000 hours; however, failure should not be attributed to lack of intelligence or talent, but it should be accepted as part of the learning process. The same author includes in his book many examples of schools and students combined with research findings. It is worth reading, particularly since it includes good examples from various fields (even though I find the working schedule of students in the example of New York school in chapter 9 a little ‘harsh’, I still believe there are many great examples included in the book).

My personal experience as a PhD student has also led me to similar conclusions about failure. Doing a PhD has taught me that learning is not a straightforward and linear process – it has ups and downs. Nevertheless, knowing that making mistakes is acceptable and inevitable has enabled me to try without being discouraged by the possibility of failure. My assumption was that, when we undertake a PhD, we are expected (even more than at other levels of education) to appear smart. Similarly, this can apply to every teacher who might enter a classroom and be expected to ‘know’. However, learning is a continuum. There is not an endpoint, and so-called ‘successful learners’ can recognise that they can constantly improve. Learners can make mistakes, but the successful learners are also resilient and find ways to improve their practice by reflecting on their failures.

As a concluding thought, I would like to offer two suggestions. Firstly, feedback (including use of praise) in a classroom can be one of the most powerful tools to support the learning process. Teacher feedback can suggest that learning is a continuum; it can be an opportunity to introduce the growth mindset in a classroom, and to help students become resilient. Interpretation of assessment results should not facilitate the perception of failure as permanent, but it should use failure as a learning event. Secondly, I would like to share the advice I give when I talk to students (and my three younger siblings!) about assessment. I always focus on making one thing clear to them: assessments and feedback can help you become better. There is no such a thing as a failure. Only a ‘not yet’.

At Evidence Based Education, we offer training on assessment and feedback. See here for more on our Assessment Lead Programme, and feel free to get in touch at ourania@evidencebased.education.

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