The Power Of Failure: A Case Study To Foster Resilience In Students

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Australian National University ailure is often seen as taboo in academia, with students striving to avoid it at all costs.

However, failure is an essential part of the research process, encouraging innovation and teaching students important skills such as resilience, creativity and adaptability.

In academia, where the focus is on producing new knowledge and pushing the boundaries of human understanding, failure is an inevitable and necessary part of the research process.

Many of the most significant breakthroughs in science, technology and the arts have come as a result of failures that were used as stepping stones towards success.

The challenge for educators, however, is to find ways to reward failure without undermining academic standards or discouraging students from striving for excellence.

Here, I offer insights into how to design assessments that encourage students to embrace failure and view it as a valuable opportunity for growth. By adopting similar strategies, educators can help to remove the stigma of failure and cultivate a culture of innovation and learning in academia.

Rewarding Failure In Academia: A Simple Assessment-based Approach

In order to teach students how to fail, I introduced assessment for research students (at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University) that rewarded them not for being “right”, but for their willingness to take risks, learn from their mistakes and persist in the face of setbacks.

Since adopting this approach to assessment, I’ve seen a significant drop in the number of research students seeking extensions, and it has built a real sense of community and mutual respect among students, ultimately helping to sustain them through the ups and downs of their academic journeys.

The best part? The assessment design is simple, easy to implement and can be adapted to suit a range of disciplines and student cohorts.

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The approach

To implement this approach, pick an assessment piece that students can work towards over a period of time, such as a research thesis or project, larger group assignment or major essay, and have them develop a plan to track their progress towards completion.

Then, ask students to submit regular reflections (fortnightly or monthly), where they are asked to identify any hurdles they faced, find solutions and readjust expectations and timelines accordingly.

This practice encourages students to embrace and learn from their failings, because instead of grading students on how well they stick to their plans, you mark them on how well they identify and manage failure.

Communicating these expectations clearly to students helps to shift the focus from grades and perfection to the process of learning and discovery.

Along the way, encourage students to share their challenges and solutions with their peers, and require them to share them with you as their educator.

This fosters collective wisdom, diverse perspectives and constructive feedback, and it ensures that support is ongoing, allowing students to fail early and fail often − a key component of working successfully through failure.

Challenges and precautions for educators in rewarding failure

When employing this approach, be mindful about assessment and feedback processes. I suggest that, in order to avoid the potential temptation for students to exaggerate their hurdles or fabricate their solutions to win rewards or avoid penalties, educators should communicate clearly the criteria for evaluation and the expectations for academic integrity.

Embracing Failure As Path To Learning And Success

By teaching students how to deal with failure and how to fail well, educators are not only preparing them for the challenges of the future but also creating a culture of learning, discovery and resilience.

This is a valuable lesson that goes beyond the classroom and into the world, where failure and success are both inevitable and essential components of growth and progress.

As this approach demonstrates, simple changes to assessment and feedback processes can make a significant difference in terms of fostering a culture of collaboration and support, where failure is embraced as an opportunity for growth and learning.

Ultimately, the ability to fail well is an essential skill for success in academia and beyond.

Fear of failure should not hinder the learning and growth of students. Instead, by embracing failure as a natural and necessary part of the learning process, and rewarding students for their resilience and persistence, educators can create an environment in which students are empowered to take risks, push boundaries and achieve their full potential.

The resulting culture of learning and discovery will prepare students not only for the challenges of academia, but also for the challenges of the future.

Nici Sweaney is a postdoctoral fellow and course convener at the Australian National University.

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