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Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice? Take a SIP of this: Productive Failure

Grassroots thoughts on effective teaching for faculty, by faculty.

February 8, 2018

MSU Denver campusAs educators, we know that college is not just about learning disciplinary content — it is also about the holistic growth that helps to form a mature, well-rounded person. Sometimes the achievement is measured by “successes” — persisting from semester to semester, earning a strong GPA, securing a coveted internship, etc. But sometimes the real lessons are found in a student’s failure. It is our job to help students to reframe their slips and missteps — both inside and outside the classroom — that play an important role in their development.

The idea of productive failure is related to Carol Dweck's concept of "growth mindset". Dweck, a prominent psychology professor from Stanford, suggests that students with a growth mindset believe that hard work and perseverance contribute to learning and achievement, whereas students with a fixed mindset may believe that achievement is a function of pre-ordained intelligence or ability. Put very simply, students with a growth mindset work through setbacks in order to continue along the path to growth and achievement, whereas students with a fixed mindset see setbacks or failures as proof of their inability to achieve.

Manu Kapur, a professor of education in Switzerland, has identified a pedagogical style called "productive failure" that encourages a growth mindset by structuring lessons around the setbacks that contribute to growth mindset. In this approach, which is problem-based and constructivist at its core, students are offered opportunities to learn that involve using their prior skills and knowledge to try to solve new problems and complete new tasks before being exposed to the content that will "give them the answer." As they face the unknown, students inevitably fail at their attempts to solve problems, but they draw upon their own strengths and apply them to disciplinary content in a meaningful and connected manner that allows them to immediately integrate and appropriate the new material once it is presented to them.

Productive failure can be particularly helpful in fostering a sense of pride, even in the failure itself. When a student feels that they are making a strong effort and contributing in a class — no matter how — they are more likely to engage with their peers and the content material. This leads to better outcomes.

Constructed this way, exercises in productive failure increase content recall and skill mastery. Productive failure allows students to have a better understanding of the “why” behind problem-solving instead of just focusing on the potential solutions. This understanding of systems can then be applied to other problem solving and critical thinking tasks.

Try this: Productive Failure

Here on some thoughts on incorporating productive failure in philosophy and action:

  • Take the shame out of failure. Share stories with students about times that you have fallen short of a goal but found a way to come out the other side. These stories may be personal, academic or professional, depending on the level of comfort you share with your students.
  • Integrate failure into your lesson plans. Kipur has been doing research in this field. “The general idea is to develop tasks that students will not be able to solve, but require them to call upon their preexisting knowledge to try to solve the problem. That knowledge can be of the subject itself, as well as the informal insights students bring from their lives. The students will inevitably fail — as the teacher expects them to — but that failure is framed as part of learning and so is not seen as shameful. This process primes students’ brains to learn the new concept from their instructor after the initial failure.” (Schwartz)
  • Incorporate many opportunities for formative assessment into your class sessions. This will allow students the opportunity to “fail safely” without negatively impacting their final grade. Here are many good examples of Classroom Assessment Techniques that are primarily formative in nature.
  • Recognize that embracing failure can have a profound impact on students of color, first-generation students and students from underserved social or educational backgrounds. Social and educational institutions may place an expectation of failure upon these students, and they may react by inadvertently lowering their own expectations or viewing failure as meeting expectations. It is fundamentally important to shift this mindset and to embrace failure — big and small — as a valuable part of the learning process.
  • Connect students to resources outside of the classroom that can help them to navigate perceived failures that could stand in the way of college completion if left to misinterpretation. For example, many students have to opt out of college for a semester to get on their feet financially, and this can make them feel as if they have failed. If you hear of a student considering this course of action, let them know that there are people on campus who can help them make a plan to return and empower them with the ability to feel proud of their financial decision while keeping on track academically. Contact the staff of Roadways at 303-615-2010 to find the right connection for your students.
  • Encourage students to take advantage of campus opportunities for engagement and development that recognize challenge and failure as part of a path to success. The 1Book/1Project/2Transform common reading program is a series of lectures and activities that always center around an author who has overcome great obstacles and has superseded the stigma of failure surrounding their setbacks. This year’s author, Diane Guerrero, will be on campus on April 4. Bring your students to hear her speak!
  • Have empathy. Be kind to yourself and others. Everyone falls flat from time to time! Make the benefits of failure outweigh the consequences. Reframe the failure and learn to move forward.

I would rather flirt with failure than never dance with my joy.”
– Wes Moore

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Productive Failure

Check out this article: “‘Productive Failure’: A Teaching Method Which Leads to Short-Term Failure, but Long-Term Success.”

This article, "When Failure is a Privilege," talks about how we can foster equity in the classroom by reframing failure.

A cool (and inexpensive!) read for you and your students: "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong" by David Shenk.

On Being Wrong: Most of us will do anything to avoid being wrong. But what if we're wrong about that? "Wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz makes a compelling case for not just admitting but embracing our fallibility in this great TED Talk.

Books from the 1Book/1Project/2Transform series:

The Other Wes Moore. From Amazon: Two kids named Wes Moore were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes scholar, decorated veteran, White House fellow and business leader while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? Wes Moore, the author of this fascinating book, sets out to answer this profound question.

In the Country We Love. From Amazon: Diane Guerrero, the television actress from the megahit “Orange is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin,” was just 14 years old on the day her parents were detained and deported while she was at school. Born in the United States, Guerrero was able to remain in the country and continue her education, depending on the kindness of family friends who took her in and helped her build a life and a successful acting career for herself, without the support system of her family.

For more information on the 1Book/1Project/2Transform series or to request a free book, click here.

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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