Why “failure”? How is it defined?
“Failure” can mean many things to many people and perceptions of failure differ. The FLIP Project takes an expansive approach that considers diverse student and instructor perspectives on failure (through original qualitative research) as well as a number of scholarly perspectives on learning through failure (and related concepts such as “struggle,” “difficulty,” “problems,” “impasses,” “knowledge gaps,” and “confusion” – see our Glossary for links to scholarship representative of specialized approaches to these terms). Considering diverse perceptions of failure is important to us as we develop research-based approaches to de-stigmatizing failure and as we advocate for supports to help students embrace and bounce back from failures.
Accidents, errors, missteps and failures are often conflated in discourse around failure and innovation. We generally distinguish failure as falling short of meeting a targeted outcome, whereas an accident connotes an unforeseen or unintended outcome that occurs by chance. Nevertheless, we believe productive discussion around learning from failure can result from reflection on each of these categories (and on their overlaps). Our Bank of Historical Examples and Case Studies are demonstrative of this expansive approach.
What models/concepts of failure do we draw from/adapt?
With some important caveats (see Power and Privilege), we draw from the following models of failure:
The work of scholars such as Kundu (2014), Hallmark (2018), and Feigenbaum (2021) undergird our examination of the roles of power and privilege in instructor perspectives of failure and student learning.
What is the role of power and privilege in learning (and recovering from) failure? What’s concerning about contemporary models of grit/resilience?
While resilience is an admirable quality worthy of thoughtful cultivation, much of the contemporary discourse around resilience and grit perpetuates a reductive understanding of achievement as fundamentally reflective of individual action and character – as a direct outcome of hard work and persistence. Such discourse does not contend responsibly with the ways in which systemic barriers limit access to opportunities, selectively offer cushions from failure, and yield radically unequal resources for renewed efforts. Invocations of “grit” are often tales of exceptionality: they conjure individuals who succeed despite the systems aligned against them. The subtext is: if you haven’t succeeded yet, you haven’t hustled hard enough. This can yield a damaging rhetoric of self-blame which is particularly unjust for those struggling against systemic barriers reflective of social deficiencies, not individual shortcomings.
Why should I want to take risks, try learning new things, and potentially struggle or fail?
Struggle – and even failure – is a consistent and often constructive feature of learning. Accompanying efforts to master unfamiliar skills or approaches, struggle often entails critical shifts in viewpoint, yielding new insights and leading to new questions and creative solutions. In science, failed experiments can lead to refinement and improvement of experimental design, revision of the original hypothesis, and redirection of research goals. Though histories of technological innovation, scientific discovery and artistic achievement are often posed as “success stories,” such achievements are rarely the result of a direct or simple path (as our Example Bank and Case Studies show). Trying and failing is one thing most innovators hold in common.
There’s so much stigma around failure, and the stakes are often very high. How can I learn from failure when there’s so much on the line (i.e., mentally, emotionally, academically, financially)?
You aren’t wrong to recognize that failure can come with high stakes. The FLIP project works to raise awareness of the uneven stakes of failure in via open educational resources and publications, helps instructors consider and address these stakes in course design, and advocates for change in institutional policies to better support all students.
However, research shows that fear of failure can dramatically limit willingness to pursue (or even set) goals that challenge the status quo. If you are a postsecondary student struggling to figure out next steps in the face of such fears, here are some things you can do:
- Examine the particularities of your situation. Seek out the assistance of a reliable support person (instructor, undergraduate administrator, academic advisor) at your department or institution to help you gauge how a particular kind of failure might affect you: how high stakes is your final project? Will a lower grade push you into a failing grade? Will this grade show up on your transcript or is there a pass/fail option? Do you have capacity to make up the credit, if it comes to that? Courses are not all designed the same and some will offer more low-stakes learning opportunities and flexibility than others.
- Remember: mistakes and mis-steps are part of any process of learning, innovation, or creation. Struggle is not a reflection of your shortcomings but often a necessary part of cognitive growth.
- Recognize how powerful it can be to approach errors with openness and curiosity.
- Recognize that while our academic institutions rely heavily on grading systems, grades are not necessarily indicators of learning, and that failing a course is not necessarily the end of anything (your GPA, your degree, your career, your reputation).
- Recognize, also, that in situations where failure will mean your health and financial security are compromised, risk-avoidance is reasonable! Make informed decisions that prioritize your wellbeing and know that you are right to do so.
What supports are available to help me take risks, learn from, and recover from failure?
Individual institutions differ as to the student support services they provide. You might begin from searching your own institution’s website to take stock of the specific programming and support services available. Search out not just centres dedicated to academic success or student learning but also centres dedicated to equity, diversity and inclusion. While not all available programming will be perfectly suited to your needs, it may surprise you how powerful it can be to realize that other students are in the same boat as you and programming has been developed to help you cope with some of the (real!) challenges of postsecondary education.
Our online Resource Hub offers the following resources for students:
- a podcast series developed by students for students
- a detailed set of examples and case studies documenting the many ways failure and struggle shape histories of invention and innovation
- simple “failure journal” prompts to get you reflecting on your works-in-progress: your daily needs and wants; major or minor accomplishments, mis-steps, and accompanying feelings; short- or long-term goals
We hope that you’ll find something here to help you know that experiencing failure in higher education doesn’t make you a failure; it means you’re learning.
In terms of my career trajectory at university, there’s so much stigma around failure, and the stakes are often very high. How can I learn from failure when there’s so much on the line (i.e., tenure/promotion, reputation, funding)?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Find your people. Ask around: have any of your colleagues (within your department and beyond) explored pedagogical approaches to failure or scholarly literature around productive failure, desirable difficulties, generative failure? Are there faculty, staff, grad students or postdoctoral fellows actively cultivating equitable teaching approaches? Do you know anyone who you feel would be interested in and sympathetic to such approaches? There is strength in numbers and solidarity goes a long way.
- Raise awareness. Share resources that educate about the negative effects of stigma surrounding failure, the uneven stakes of risking failure, and the generative benefits of taking risks in your teaching and research endeavours.
- Do what feels right for you. You know your own situation best. Taking a chance on a new approach need not look like a radical overhaul of all the systems currently in place; it can start small. Our research shows that for many students, open, honest discussion about failure in postsecondary learning is already an improvement on the status quo. Even minor changes in course design can help. (See aids such as sample syllabus content, an example bank to stimulate in-class discussion, and prompts for reflective journaling in our Resource Hub).
As an instructor, how can I do this approach when other instructors in my department aren’t?
- Are there faculty, staff, grad students or postdoctoral fellows actively cultivating equitable teaching approaches in your department (or any who you feel would be interested in and sympathetic to such approaches)? Introduce them to some materials on learning through failure. Share our site.
- Seek out your institution’s Teaching and Learning Centre (or any programming bodies dedicated to teaching at your institution). Do they offer resources or programming on pedagogical approaches to failure? If not, put in a request.
- Seek out connections beyond institutional boundaries. If there is a scholar whose work on learning from failure resonates with you, reach out over email. Reach out to us directly at FLIP (and enroll in our listserv) to join a community of scholars working towards equitable research, teaching, and policy around failure in higher education.
Is talking about failure with students enough?
- While talking about failure with students may seem too simple to constitute a real “intervention,” this simple step was most consistently identified by students (across 47% of responses to our undergraduate student survey) as critical to decreasing stigma around failure. Conversations about failure are thus a significant starting point for normalizing failure as part of the learning process and for building a classroom ethos that encourages students to take chances, anticipate challenges and missteps, and bounce back when they encounter obstacles.
- However, these conversations should not be the final word; ideally, they will be accompanied by classroom (and institutional) supports that put theory into practice and begin to contend (locally/globally) with matters of power and privilege affecting how failure is anticipated and experienced by diverse students within the institution. Rendering failures recoverable for all students requires an effort larger than individual and classroom conversations, though it may well begin from there.