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How to Fail: The Lesson We’re Forgetting to Teach Our Students

“The greatest teacher, failure is.”

If Yoda says it, it must be worth spending some time thinking about.

I also hear this message when I listen to successful entrepreneurs. They say that failure leads to innovation and is critical to their ultimate success.

Thomas Edison admitted to a thousand failed attempts to make the light bulb before getting it right in 1879.

“Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently,” he said. One could argue that the greatness of the United States of America was founded on overcoming failure, and second chances abounded for those who were willing to take chances.

However, in some ways, the academic system is rigged against allowing students the opportunity to try new things and fail. Why? And how can we change that?

As a heartbreaking example, an excellent student at Adelphi University, where I am an assistant professor of physics, participated in a joint STEM partnership program with another university. To maintain participation in this program, along with a scholarship, this student had to maintain at least a 3.3 GPA and get a B or higher in almost all of his classes.

This student had a bad test — one bad test — and it dropped his grade below a B. His scholarship nearly disappeared, along with his participation in this program, which he saw as his whole future. The student was crushed.

I had to ask myself, how is the world a better place now that this brilliant young student is walking around feeling like a complete failure because of one B-minus? He earned his way into this program. In a single day, he had lost nearly everything he earned.

Tying opportunities exclusively to grade point encourages students to focus on the worst parts of academia: test-taking for testing’s sake, selecting the easiest professors, even blatant cheating—just to maintain a GPA.

So this is my request to all of us in higher education: Let’s give students the opportunity to Fail with a capital F. In fact, let’s teach them how to fail. It sounds counter-intuitive, but teaching failure may be one of the best ways we can teach a student to succeed.

Here, I want to focus on the very positive idea of allowing a space for people to move into after a serious drawback. Our students can learn from small mistakes, before they get out into the post-college world and make big ones. But, first, we need to allow them the room to make those mistakes—and recover from them.

One of the hardest things to teach an elite student is that research is about playing with nature, learning from unsuccessful ideas and having the boldness to develop new ideas. These are exactly the qualities we need for innovation. At my institution, we have focused on a number of different approaches to give students “second chances.”

As an example, I sometimes have upperclassmen lead discussion sections for my Physics 101 course. In one instance, a student made a serious mistake in leading the class. In fact, I had to “fire” him from the role.

But that’s where the professor’s task began. I talked to the student, built him back up, provided other responsibilities and worked with him to give him a second chance. This learning experience was painful for him, but it became an important life lesson. Through that failure, he became a successful, more careful, and far better student.

Sometimes it is just about students needing to learn at a slower pace. We need to create a space for students from backgrounds where mathematics wasn’t prized —often those from lower-income or diverse communities.

I see an alarming trend of female students dropping out of physics, beginning in sophomore year, at much higher rates. The answer may be to teach at a slower rate.

But this adds fuel to a culture war in the sciences: There is a mentality in physics that professors are here to train the next Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton, and to idolize the scientific greats almost to the point of completely neglecting the mean-performing student.

I’ll be frank. This is a messy problem, and I don’t have all the answers. Some physics education researchers have resorted to making their exams easier as a means to encourage students to stay in physics. As an untenured faculty member, I am nervous about making my exams easier. So here are other ways we can address the problem:

•Offer a warm, encouraging environment for students to learn in.

•Assess student effort in addition to performance. In my classes, I note how hard students are working on homework and whether or not they are reaching out for resources such as office hours and review sessions.

•Find extra opportunities for those students who are working hard and continuously improving. Giving students more extra credit points gives them more opportunities to succeed if they do poorly on the initial exam.

•Model good study habits. I host review sessions at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. (25-percent attendance at 8 a.m.!), where I give students difficult problems and encourage them to work out the answers in groups.

•Provide struggling students with some “wiggle room.” I give them more than a single semester to do the work, by pushing exams to the summer term.

•Reward improvement. I will sometimes drop the first exam score if there is a net exam improvement of 3 percent per exam, if it leads to a higher score. This allows me to continue to give extra-hard traditional exams, while giving students opportunities to be successful.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find the perfect balance between pushing and supporting my students. But one thing I am sure of: One bad grade should not be enough to derail a student’s entire career.

So, please, let your students fail. And then let them learn from it.

Dr. Matthew J. Wright is assistant professor of physics and assistant department chair at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

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