by Jeff Cain, EdD, MS
One of the well-accepted aphorisms of education is that one learns best from mistakes – that failure is the best teaching tool. However, the question I often ask myself is “Collectively, does higher education permit safe failure; the ability for students to be wrong in a manner that does not harm their progress?” In more simple terms, do we offer sufficient opportunities for students to learn from mistakes in ways that are not detrimental to their grade?
Why students avoid taking learning risks
I first started pondering this while developing my Creative Thinking for Innovation elective.1 One thing that is clearly articulated in the literature2 and that became evident in my course is that the fear of being wrong is a major barrier to creativity and innovation. I sometimes think educators instill in students the notion that being wrong is the worst thing that can happen in school.
- Being wrong on exams will lower grades and hinder selection to a competitive residency position.
- Being wrong during class discussions might evoke a snide remark from the instructor.
- Being wrong on an academic presentation will subject one to public criticism, embarrassment, and once again, a poor grade.
We condition students to do everything to avoid being wrong. That is okay to a degree, because for obvious reasons, we must ensure that students are right when they need to be. However, at some level, an overemphasis on avoiding mistakes comes at the expense of creating better learners. Students may shy away from thinking about alternate solutions to problems and/or asking “fringe” questions because they fear the negative consequences of being incorrect. Learning how to critically examine problems, ask controversial questions, and approach problems from various perspectives can easily get lost when getting points for being “right” becomes the primary goal. I regularly ask students and residents on academic rotations if they prefer learning less and getting a good grade, or learning more, but receiving a bad grade. Most choose the former, noting that they probably should choose to learn more, but that the grade is too important for the next steps in their professional education career. That response indicates the need for change. When grades are consciously or subconsciously more important to students than learning, then faculty need to consider the unintended consequences of the academic culture.
How to let students make safe mistakes
As with most problems in the social sciences, there is no simple solution. Multiple personal and situational confounding variables (eg, motivation, mindset, course type, etc.) contribute to students avoiding learning risks and overemphasizing the importance of grades relative to learning. However, with some intentional course and instructional design, I think educators can help students become more willing to take chances and see the value of mistakes.
- Establish a positive classroom error culture. Fascinating research by Tulis shows that students’ attitudes toward mistakes are associated with how their teachers manage and respond to mistakes.3 This means that the classroom climate must be conducive to safe failure; that instructors treat wrong answers with respect; and perhaps most importantly, that instructors help students learn from errors – not just correct them. One technique that I am trying to incorporate is that when students make a mistake, I work with them directly to understand that mistake versus providing the solution or turning to another student for the correct answer. For instance, I might ask them to explain the thought process they used for arriving at their answer. That enables me to better understand what caused their miscomprehension so that I can guide them accordingly.
- Provide numerous chances for students to fail safely – especially with content that is more complex and/or important. Students may need multiple opportunities to be wrong in a grade-safe environment and receive proper instructional feedback that helps them learn from their errors. I am attempting this more through activities with little to no direct impact on their grade including frequent quizzes, audience response system questions, case/problem solving activities, and personal problem sets – all of these with feedback.
School should not be a place where students are expected to be right most of the time. School should be a place where you learn to be right. Teaching students how to be right might just mean letting them be wrong even more.
- Cain J. A pharmacy elective course on creative thinking, innovation, and TED talks. Am J Pharm Educ. 2016; 80(10): Article 170.
- Covington MV, Segal J, Chipman S, Glaser R, eds. Strategic Thinking and The Fear of Failure. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; 1985. Thinking and learning skills; No. 1.
- Tulis M. Error management behavior in classrooms: Teachers’ responses to student mistakes. Teach Teach Educ. 2013; 33: 56-68.
Jeff Cain, EdD, MS is an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice & Science and Director of Education Technology at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Jeff’s education scholarship interests include innovative teaching, social media, and contemporary issues in higher education. He is actively involved with preparing aspiring academicians for a future career in pharmacy education and scholarship.
Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning