Teaching Tip: Fail Early, Fail Often

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”
Henry Ford

Your midterm grades are in (I hope) and some of your students are about to get a wake-up call about their performance in your class. You may be somewhat depressed about the number of students who are failing or close to it. But many highly successful teachers, entrepreneurs and researchers believe that failure is a critical part of the learning process. It’s what students think and do about failure that makes the difference.

Student responses to failure are shaped by several factors; one of these is their attitude toward failure. Students who come in the door believing that intellectual ability is fixed and cannot be changed (entity theorists) see failure as a confirmation of their lack of ability. If this is what you believe, why would you try again? Students who believe that intellectual ability can be increased through hard work (incremental theorists) are more open to seeing the inherent challenge in a failure.

Entity thinkers focus more on getting that A because they see it as a confirmation of their ability – how many of you have heard “but I’m an A student, how could I get a B (or C!) in this class?” Students who truly believe they can’t do math or philosophy or economics because they lack some essential mental quality are going to give up the first time they see a low score.

Our society and our schools often foster entity thinking, without necessarily intending to do so. I think it’s one example of John Tagg’s dichotomy between espoused theory (Take intellectual risks!) and theory-in-use (Do it right the first time because you won’t get another chance!).  If you’re faced with a classroom of entity theorists who play it safe to avoid failure or give up after an initial failure, how can you encourage them to embrace failure?

Tell failure stories – lots of them. Students need to hear about the failures of famous people they know and well-known people in your field. They also need to hear about the mistakes you have made, how many drafts you wrote or projects you tossed. Even better, take some risks in your class, and when one of your ideas doesn’t work, use it as an illustration. The technology doesn’t work today? Show them how to cope with failures that aren’t even your fault! Students need to see models for how to cope with failure graciously, how to analyze failure and learn from it. It’s one of the most useful life skills you’ll ever teach. Talking about the process of trying, failing and improving also normalizes failure and makes it less threatening and more of an opportunity. Sometimes talking quite directly about these types of attitudes and asking students to think about their own beliefs can help them begin to let go of these attitudes.

Help students practice learning from failures. Have students analyze their performance in your class. Why did they do poorly on a test? What made the paper they wrote a C or D instead of an A or a B? Don’t let them say “I didn’t study/work hard enough” and stop there. How did they study? How long, what did they do, when and where did they do it? How could they have improved? Who could they talk to about learning better ways to study? Have them re-write answers to test questions (for partial credit), re-submit or critique their papers. Videotape their presentations (the CTE has mini-video cameras!) and ask them to watch and analyze them.  Critiquing completed works is good, but it’s even better if there is the opportunity to apply the critique to improve the work.

Encourage failures in class. My music teachers have always said that it’s better to make a mistake confidently and loudly rather than refuse to make the commitment. This is true in class discussion, problem solving and all kinds of creative projects. Give bonus points and praise for a risk taking students even if (ESPECIALLY if) their idea goes down in flames. Encourage other students to see questioning and risk taking as admirable. And do not subtly excuse failure – “that’s a really hard one”. These kinds of statements are meant to be reassuring, but they also imply that the student can’t do hard work. Better to say something like “this one takes awhile to figure out – keep at it.” This tells the students that if they are willing to do the work, they will get there. And that it’s completely normal not to figure out a problem or answer a question on the first try. If you are feeling playful you could even have a competition for the biggest and best mistake of the day!

Now, I know that some of your students fall more easily into the category of passive failures – their motivation, their readiness for college, or maybe their personal problems are getting in the way of their success. Their attitudes towards failure may not have much to do with their current problems. Dealing with student failures, like dealing with students, is not one size fits all. But helping all students learn to embrace failure as a necessary part of learning and life is a goal well worth seeking. Think about the rest of the semester. How could you incorporate more failure in your course?

If you’re interested in further reading, Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion was written for k-12 audiences but has applications in post-secondary education and beyond.


Listening to an Apologist for–Ugh–Passive Voice

When I ask profs in our WI workshops to list their top five grammar/mechanics peeves, passive voice always ranks near #1 for me.

Specifying who did what to whom forces writers to clarify their ideas and usually livens their prose.

Of course, our workshop also acknowledges disciplinary differences since the sciences often favor passive voice for its objective veneer and emphasis on results rather than agents.

But as linguist Geoffrey Pullum points out in a rant for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, a rule like “don’t use the passive voice”–like all writing rules–begs to be broken.  If good writing could be boiled down to simple vaccines, we could simply innoculate our students.

What does your syllabus say?

Like everyone else I am trying to get all my last minute class preparations done, including my syllabus, while at the same time trying to come up with a CTE blog post that would be interesting, timely and relevant.  And quick.  Then, I saw this  blog post from Maryellen Weimer’s Teaching Professor Blog. Those of you who attended Faculty Convocation may recall that Weimer has written extensively about learner-centered classrooms. Anyway, I debated whether it would be “cheating” to just repost it, but it meets ALL my criteria AND it reminds me to remind you that we have an institutional subscription to The Teaching Professor newsletter, also edited by Weimer.  So, please check out the post, titled “What does your syllabus say about you and your course” and consider subscribing to The Teaching Professor newsletter for a continuing source of interesting and thoughtful information about teaching and learning.

Instructions for how to subscribe to the newsletter are on the CTE Blackboard community site.  If you are not enrolled in the site,  click on “Community” and search for the organization Center for Teaching Excellence and join.  Or, just email us at teaching@marymount.edu.

Welcome back!

Writing (Teaching) Tip: The Art of Giving Directions

I was talking yesterday with an MU class of graduate students preparing for careers as nurse-educators.  One spoke scornfully of “vague” and “wordy” assignments, pages of directions, when he felt that a few sentences would suffice.

It’s a tricky balance–providing enough but not too much direction.  Many of us lay so much groundwork because we’ve been burned in the past. Sometimes it feels as if we’re practicing defensive teaching: we lay out each and every margin, primary source, deadline, etc.  so that when a student comes complaining we can say, Look: I told you to do X and you did Y.  And sometimes it feels like hand-holding.

But there are many more positive reasons for explicit and detailed (and yet concise!) writing assignments.  Carolyn and I lay out some of the reasons behind our assignment checklist in the WI workshops, but one of the most important ones is Carolyn’s mantra, “They’re not all like us.”  For every competent and impatient graduate student there are many more undergrads at MU struggling to master college-level work.  Most are not like you as a college student; most are not destined to be academics.  Laying out your expectations, you are helping them think about audience, purpose, and rhetorical context for a writing assignment.  Thorough directions are the sort of accommodation for differing abilities that may help every student do better.  Able students can skim directions–and sometimes they find something they might otherwise have overlooked.

I’m always happy to be a sounding board for anyone working on a writing assignment.  There are also innumerable resources about assignment design on the Web, such as this Columbia College faculty development PowerPoint.



Writing (Teaching) Tip: Teaching Students to SCROL

Yes, with one L.

I’ve been reading about teaching reading to second-language students, and this little exercise using headings and subheads in a text might benefit any student.  It’s quick to teach and focuses on the organization of a text in a way that’s useful to both readers and writers.

It’s called SCROL (Grant 1993, as described in Tricia Hedge, Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, 196-197).

S–Survey the headings before reading.  Ask for each one: What do I know about this topic already?   What information might this section contain?

This draws on students’ background knowledge and gets them actively engaged in reading through prediction.

C–Connect the ideas in the headings.  Ask: How do they relate?

Students begin to see skeleton of the text.


Students are not approaching the text cold.  Encourage marking.

O–Outline.  Outline major ideas and supporting details in each segment.  To check how well you remember the article, write the headings on a separate page and try to recreate the outline without looking at the text.

L–Look back.  Check remembered outline against text and fill in gaps.

Writing (Teaching) Tip: Keep the Pen in the Hand of the Writer

Keep the pen in the hand of the writer.

That’s the trope and 1st commandment of writing centers–and SOP for writing tutors at the LRC.

Every week I put in a couple of hours at the LRC, so I too keep my pen on the table.  It’s a challenging experience for anyone accustomed to the teacher’s or editor’s prerogative to mark up text.

Last week I was working with an EN 101 student who confessed, “I’m a terrible writer.”  Her paper was indeed terribly written, an empty and borderline incoherent summary of an article about the MTV show Skins.

(Skins, for enquiring minds, features comely teenagers without zits getting into trouble over sex, alcohol, and other adolescent diversions.)

But as I read the paper aloud to her, tripping over missing words and pulling up short at the end of sentence fragments, I did come across a gem of an idea: she understood that the author of the article didn’t think Skins was as bad as parents make it out to be.  “Unlike a reality show, it’s scripted.”

Alas, this student hadn’t explored that thought, so I asked her a lot of questions and fed her a lot of prompts and kept my hands in my lap.  She kept writing, and the paper improved.  It wasn’t that good.  It wasn’t the summary I would have written.  But it was hers.  It expressed her insight that Skins writers aspire to character development.

I met the same student today, for another summary.  We read a Post column about the Super Bowl side by side.  Who the heck is this Jerry of Jerry World? I asked. We read on. Oh, Jerry Jones.  Look, there’s a hyperlink.  She clicked, and we found out he owns the Dallas Cowboys.  I hope she also clicked on the behavior I was modeling,  questioning the text.

I did some more pushing and pulling.  I worried that I was being too directive.  I worried that I wasn’t being directive enough.  I worried that she was still vague and repetitive.  When I articulated a thought and she tried to transcribe it verbatim–what did you just say?–I pretended to forget.  But the two paragraphs she drafted came from her own hand.  On her own she’ll have to retype them; she might even revise them.  Whatever I said will vanish because I kept my pen off her paper.  But whatever she ends up with will be her own work.

Pen-off feedback might seem like a luxury reserved for the leisurely interaction of tutors and writers, not the chop-chop exchange between faculty and students.  But you might give it a try.  What if you didn’t line edit?  Or even make margin comments?  What if you didn’t give directions for fixing the paper?  What if you just asked questions?  You might write them down.  Students might then write you back, folding their answers to your questions into the draft.

Just a thought.

Writing (Teaching) Tip–Acknowledging that Criticism Hurts

English playwright John Osborne once said, “Asking a writer what he thinks about criticism is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

That makes you, in the eyes of most students, a dog.  They write; you criticize.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about genuine praise, or “appreciative inquiry,” as a feedback tool.  That’s one way to avoid feeling like a dog: avoid criticism.

Yet most writing feedback contains some kind of critique.  Students lock onto it like heat-seeking missiles.  They read it, they hide it, they quote it, and sometimes they even trade it in a kind of perverse one-upmanship.  But do they heed it?

Maybe one reason that students ignore good advice is that it hurts too much to acknowledge it fully.  It means fessing up to poor work habits and scraping half-baked ideas into the trash.  How can we help students get beyond the pain to productive revision?

One tack might be to distance your criticism from a student’s self-esteem.  Descriptive language–this paper summarizes instead of compares–can deliver a precise message without the collateral damage that evaluative language–this paper fails to compare–sometimes inflicts.  Rather than address the writer, make the paper the target for your arrows of insight.  The assignment [not the instructor!] challenges students to compare theory X and theory Y, but this paper [not the student!] summarizes X… In a one-on-one conference, you can physically position the paper so that you and the student are sitting side by side, a team, looking together at this text and what it is trying to communicate.

Another tack is to acknowledge that criticism can be bruising, but productive writers deal with it and move on.  Quoting Osborne and other literary greats in her online article “Painful Prose: The Difficulty of Writing,” University of Oregon law professor Suzanne Rowe reminds legal writers that pain is an inevitable part of the process.  Anyone who writes confronts critics, internal as well as external, so you might share a story or two with students about how you manage to soldier on. No matter what you think of Bill Clinton, I feel your pain was one of his most effective debate lines.

Finally, you might invite (assign) students to respond to your feedback in writing.  This response not only checks that students have 1) read and 2) understood your comments, but it also gets them thinking about revision immediately.  One guide is “Handling Criticism,” a handout from Utah State University’s academic resource center that has nothing to do with writing but offers sensible advice for acknowledging, disarming, and probing criticism.  After you comment on a draft, you might ask students to send you an e-mail along these lines:

  1. Which of my comments struck you as the most valid?  Where do you see room for improvement in your paper?
  2. Did I miss something in your paper?  Tell me where I misread your work or overlooked an important point.
  3. Ask me two questions that will help you shape your next draft.

You will be helping students develop a writerly mindset as they consider audience response and edit their own work.