Teaching the How: Three Ways to Support Failure

Over-the-shoulder view of a female professor lecturing to an auditorium
I give students in my literature courses a lot of weird assignments: I have them make and post films about why people should read Dickens. I tell them these films should show careful analysis of the text but should also entertain and have good music so that viewers won’t get bored. I ask students in my gen ed capstone to create campaigns advocating for the liberal arts. I make my creative writing students create a job portfolio unrelated to their professional aspirations as writers. They object: They want to write stories. Why in the world should they articulate a set of conceptual skills they’d bring to a State Department position?

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I give students in my literature courses a lot of weird assignments: I have them make and post films about why people should read Dickens. I tell them these films should show careful analysis of the text but should also entertain and have good music so that viewers won’t get bored. I ask students in my gen ed capstone to create campaigns advocating for the liberal arts. I make my creative writing students create a job portfolio unrelated to their professional aspirations as writers. They object: They want to write stories. Why in the world should they articulate a set of conceptual skills they’d bring to a State Department position?

I do this because I want to shake my students out of the transactional malaise that is most academic writing. As Arum and Roksa pointed out in 2011, most students assume that professors assign papers because that’s what professors are supposed to do—not because these papers have any relation to real learning. Students see most paper assignments as meaningless. I think these weird assignments grab their attention and make it more likely that they’ll understand that there’s something here that really matters.

I also use nontraditional assignments because they require more deliberate thought on the part of students. Most good students will tell me, in moments of weakness or bravado, that they can crank out an A paper in a night—indeed, they’ve done so many times. I want to prevent that. Something done with that little time-on-task likely won’t lead to much real learning. The fundamental purpose of any assignment should be the forward movement of learning.   

And there’s one added bonus to assigning something other than the ordinary: it forces me to be more deliberate. If I’m going to ask students to create a game that teaches players about the power of the humanities or design a poster that conveys the complexities of a social-epistemic approach to teaching writing, I know that the classroom is going to be anything but business-as-usual. Yes, we still cover content; students will learn the basics and then some. But the questions I ask during discussion change, the types of connections students are making on their own change, the directions lectures, dialogues and debates go becomes more unpredictable. With assignments like these I can’t just send students off to do their thing; I have to teach. I have to think carefully about what I’m doing in the classroom.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying this: sometimes as teachers, I think we’re so concerned with covering course content that we forget to think about the bigger picture: why the content matters, how students use it, explore it, contextualize it, practice skills related to it, and make sense out of it.

And the thing is? That stuff—the contextualizing and making sense? That’s HARD.

What’s more, if we follow traditional models that deliver content for 13 weeks and end with a huge project but never give students the opportunity to practice the skills necessary for that assignment, then we’ve got an ethical issue. Because the really clever students who learn quickly and have support networks will be fine. And the rest . . . will not. And if we take seriously our role as educators but only the already high-performing students get A’s, then we’re not doing a very good job.

Content matters. Don’t get me wrong. Students need strong content in order to succeed on a project and to succeed in life. But we also need to give students time to work with that content, to experiment with it, fail with it, to try again, to get a little better, to start gaining a sense of their capabilities, and to take on a harder problem. And then a harder problem. And then begin to achieve some level of mastery.

In the end, I’m going to argue that the key component in education is making room for failure. On the most basic level, this means making space in the course syllabus for feedback and revisions of not just early drafts of written work, but oral presentations, digital projects, quantitative projects, and scientific posters. The go-to term these days for something like this is “scaffolding,” but like a lot of go-to language in academia, it’s hard to figure out exactly what that means. So I’m going to simplify and propose that faculty explore and implement a series of small focused practice sessions that are ungraded, minimally graded, or proportionally graded.

Those terms are perhaps self-explanatory, but allow me to unpack them nevertheless:

Ungraded refers to assignments or student work that doesn’t get any grade at all (surprise!). Think, for instance, about that physics equation students to graph in groups. Or that impromptu speech students give as a precursor to their major presentation. Or that image or concept map they create to illustrate a complex theory that may perplex their peers. Think also about smaller out-of-class assignments: finding a single really good source on a topic for class discussion the next day; attempting to apply a sociological theory to a family dynamic; analyzing a main-stream media article that references the content being learned in the chemistry course. My colleague Hannah Robbins, who teaches mathematics, has the students in her courses design the rubrics for their major projects. The rubrics themselves are ungraded, and while the work students do creating them doesn’t directly prepare them for the final oral presentations (or papers, or posters), they come away from this work with an insider’s understanding of what’s expected of them in the larger project. So, ungraded, but invaluable.   

Minimally graded can refer to two types of student work. The first are relatively small assignments that students prepare out of class for which they receive an individual grade. This might be, for instance, a simple case study students work on in preparation for a more complex case study later in the course or on an exam. My colleague Jen Jackl, in communications, has students design an activity illustrating for the rest of the class a complex social interaction or concept. Engineering students could be asked to come up with three reasonable, feasible solutions for a problem, then lead a class discussion on which is best, and why.

The grade for this initial run should be no more than 5% of the overall final grade for the course. Indeed, it may be even smaller: I’ve seen accounting and statistics professors assign a series of series of practice runs each worth 1.5% of the overall grade as a precursor to more complicated projects. The key here is that: a) the work has to model key skills necessary for success later in the term;  b) the grade has to be small enough that students falling flat on their faces won’t prevent overall success in the course; and c) students have time to do the work outside of class. With the exception of exams, very little work done in the classroom should receive a grade, even a small one.

The second version of minimally graded work has less to do with the overall weight of the work toward the final grade than with the level of effort required of the instructor. An example of this comes from Heidi Hanrahan, an award-winning English professor at Shepherd University in West Virginia. Every day (or every other day, or twice a week, or whatever keeps students on track but doesn’t overwhelm you), students show up with a typed response to the day’s reading. This response should consist of a quote that serves as an epigraph—a line or two that students really love, or really hate, or that really confuses them. The rest of the page should be a thoughtful unpacking of this quotation, exploring and complicating the liking, the disagreeing, or the confusion.

The purpose of an assignment like this is for students to explore their own thinking about a text while polishing their analytical writing skills. As such, the grade is really kind of secondary: the assignment isn’t intended to be formal or even perfectly grammatical—simply having students engage in messy, sometimes contradictory, always critically exploratory writing is enough. As a result, when I adopt this assignment in my own classes, I simply give students a checkmark if they’d taken the process seriously enough. I also make the occasional comment, but usually in a conversational, non-judgmental kind of way. I call this “white wine grading,” for reasons that are perhaps obvious.

That said, though these are “minimally graded” on my part, they do count for 15% of the overall course grade. Students who get checks on 90% or more receive an A for that portion of the grade; students who get checks for 80–89% receive a B; 70–79% merits a C. Students who do less than 70% fail the entire class, because, ungraded or not, conversational or not, these assignments matter, the kinds of learning that occur as students write and think and unpack are crucial to their development. I wouldn’t ask them to do it if that weren’t the case.

The third type of response, proportionally graded, is relatively simple: students engage in an increasingly complex set of preliminary assignments that prepare them for a summative project. The earliest, easiest versions of this preliminary work count for very little (say, 5–10% of the overall grade); the middle versions count for more (10–15%); and the final versions count for a great deal (25%+). So, for instance, early in his geoscience course my colleague Chris will give his students rock samples that are relatively easy to analyze in terms of making drilling recommendations; later he’ll give them more complicated samples, with more “noise”—that is, meaningless data—and less-clear recommendations; and at the end of the course he’ll provide students with complex and messy samples where they’ll essentially have to construct conclusions on their own. The early case studies will count for 10% of the final grade, the middle ones for 15%, the final one for between 20 and 25%.

An approach like this could, of course, be applied in nearly every field: sociology or psychology students might examine increasingly complex case studies; literature or history students might explore more and more complicated texts or artifacts. In the end, this approach—this scaffolding or whatever you want to call it—seems obvious, right?

But then . . . how come we don’t do it this more often? How come we don’t include assignments like these into our syllabi, and set aside time for them during the semester? 

Because we feel pressure to cover content. Because we’ve been persuaded that teaching these skills is not our job. Because we forget how acclimated we are to the work of our fields, how much of it we take as a given, as “normal”—even when it’s not. Because we forget how often we ourselves failed, and how much we learned when we did. 

And when we forget that, then . . . well, I worry that we’ve failed again. And not in a good way.

Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Center for Academic Resources and Pedagogical Excellence at Washington and Lee University. The ideas proposed in this essay are elaborated in his most recent book: Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, published by Stylus. You can follow him on Twitter @CurricularGeek.