Sometimes, students need to fail

Productive failure builds resilience

You never want your students to fail, right?

Actually, a new trend in teaching methods encourages students to fail—occasionally—and teaches them what to do next.

A recent report by the Open University (OU) highlighted the method, called productive failure, along with several other pedagogy trends.

How does it work?

Productive failure requires students to take a crack at solving complicated problems before receiving any direction from instructors.

Instructors following the productive failure method "hold back and not try to profess their subject, not try and teach the topic, but let the learner explore first in a controlled way," describes Mike Sharples, the chair in educational technology at the OU's Institute of Educational Technology.

Where does the instructor come in?

According to the report, teaching productive failure can be a demanding process for the instructor, who corrects and discusses students' initial attempts. To do this, the instructor must have a deep understanding of the problem and of the way students think.

Find—and support—your most innovative instructors

Why does it work?

Though the method may initially knock students' confidence, the report says the process could "help them become more creative and resilient" going forward. Students also learn more about the "essential concepts" behind each problem and why the solution works. Productive failure "requires students to embrace challenge and uncertainty," the report's authors write.

Sharples admits that "trying to fail successfully" sounds like a contradiction, but there's evidence that it works. Controlled studies of students in the United States and five other countries have found it to be more effective than traditional teaching methods. Productive failure is used in over 26 schools in Singapore and is quickly gaining traction elsewhere.

Failure is important in fostering student resilience, according to Tim Davis, the University of Virginia's executive director for student resilience and leadership development. Davis has established when students don't go beyond their comfort zones, they shield themselves from the failure necessary for fostering resilience.

How the University of Virginia encourages failure to build resilience

What other new methods does the OU report highlight?

"Design thinking" and "formative analytics" are among the other pedagogies discussed in the OU report.

  • Design thinking puts students in situations where they must think like designers and use creativity to create solutions to problems.
  • Formative analytics gives students instant feedback on their class work and asks them to reflect on the feedback, pinpoint areas for improvement, identify next steps, and tweak long-term goals if necessary.

What should colleges consider before adopting this method?

As is the case with adopting any new method, there is some level of risk-taking involved, acknowledges Chee Kit Looi, the co-author of the OU report and the head of the Learning Sciences Lab at Nanyang Technological University's National Institute of Education.

"These innovations need to be adapted, in certain ways, to address the diversified needs and contents of each university or place of learning," Looi says. He encourages practitioners to share their experiences about what's working and what's not so that everyone can build on each other (Elmes, Times Higher Education, 12/1). 

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