Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's OK to Fail

Today, I had my usual second-class lecture on the advantages of active reading and how students usually read for pleasure/emotion and thus need to change how they read "school work" in order to engage their brain. It always goes over well, as students realize that basically staring at words on a page for two hours every week  and then living off of energy drinks and little sleep for a week while they cram for finals is really not a pleasant, effective, or ideal way to spend four years and thousands of dollars. But today, I added a little unplanned and wholly instinctive wrinkle to the second-day lecture: I don't expect perfection and it's ok to get the answer wrong.

I mentioned this at first in regards to their in-class free writes and homework: they get credit for making an effort to understand and engage with the materials, regardless if their engagement takes them in wildly strange directions. It might seem really touchy-touchy to reward effort, and I always shudder when students cry about a bad grade on a paper, claiming they worked so hard on it, but when we're talking about the process of learning, then mistakes and misdirections are as important as eventually getting it right. Their mistakes are as important to me in my process of helping them learn so I can adapt my teaching in order to meet them where they are. 

I've always tried to set up my classes in such a way that if the students give an honest effort, they will produce work that is of good enough quality to have earned them an A. We read and reread. We discuss and debate. We write, revise, and rewrite. We give and get feedback. I am the first person to admit a mistake when a class or assignment clearly didn't work the way I had envisioned. I'll meet them where they are, but I've got to know where that is. And that means I need them to be honest about what they are learning and what they aren't.

In other words, they have to be ready to possibly fail the first time they try something. They don't want to think too hard about what they've read in case their reading is wrong. They don't want to try something different in how they read/write/study because it might not work and thus their grade will suffer. They don't want to put too much effort into something that might not pay off. I think a lot of students' current apathy or laziness stems from fear: fear of being wrong, fear of wasting their time, fear of looking foolish. I told them today that if they learned something, even if that something is "this really didn't work", then they are further ahead than when they started.

I try to remember that lesson myself when I teach. It's never going to be perfect. And sometimes it will fail. But as long as I am open to recognizing and then fixing whatever went wrong, then I think I'm doing ok. I hope to get my students to understand that, too.

PS You have just read my 100th post here on College Ready Writing. Thank you so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and generally participating in my ongoing conversation about teaching, higher education, and beyond, mistakes and all.

1 comment:

  1. I work with undergraduate science instructors to implement learner-centered instruction. One of our big tools is think-pair-share using clickers. There is ongoing debate about how to reward students for using clickers: (i) no points at all, (ii) points for participating or (iii) participation plus bonus points for choosing the correct answer. It's tough to keep the students participating without some reward, so most instructors opt for (ii) or (iii).

    A new study by James and Willoughby (Am J Phys, 79(1), Jan 2011) tracks the conversations of students during the pairing stage of TPS. One type of conversation they coded is when a student simply defers to another student even if that is inconsistent with the first student's reasoning.

    Now here's the interesting part: When the TPS sessions are for participation only (so called, "low stakes"), these deferring conversations occur about 7% of the time. In the TPS sessions where there are bonus points for getting the correct answer, the "deferring" conversations occur about 20% of the time.

    The fear of being penalized for failing (by losing a point or two) suppresses the peer instruction. To take advantage of the great potential for learning afforded by TPS, the instructor must create a classroom culture where "it's okay to fail."

    Thanks, Lee, for the post. It made me look at this one aspect of TPS/clickers and will help me to help my colleagues better implement TPS.

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