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.

What’s “Critical Thinking” in Your Discipline?

In an article for Education Week Teacher, high school principal and world lit teacher Daniel McMahon notes the Orwellian “sheer cloudy vagueness” around the term “critical thinking” despite wide consensus that it’s critical for student success.  He defines critical thinking as a series of skills that move well beyond memory and recognition, those staples of multiple-choice testing.  CT, he says, encompasses “inferential skills, predictive-validity skills, observation and close-reading skills, and pattern-recognition skills.”

McMahon describes how critical thinking practice works in his class.  He gives students related texts–flood stories, for example–and asks them to “1) group everything we know about the stories by what is common to them; 2) start separating the stories by what distinguishes them; and 3) evaluate the stories by a specified criteria (for example, realism, destructiveness, moralism, and so on).”

“To teach predictive validity,” he continues, “I might engage in a close reading of a story or poem—phrase by phrase or line by line—and ask a series of questions after each line about the things that could happen next.”

What do you do to teach critical thinking?


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.

Teaching Tip: Fire Management

I’ve been trying to put together a teaching tip for the past two weeks, but every time I think I might have time to do it, I get interrupted.  Students who need help, faculty who have a great idea to share, friends and family with important news.  How am I supposed to focus with all these interruptions?  And “just say no” is not an option – these are all GOOD interruptions; I want to be involved with all these things and people.  While searching through my emails for inspiration, I came across this Tom Robbins quote in an article by productivity guru David Allen:   “True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”  Wow, doesn’t that sound like an awesome state of being?  Allen offers up the fire department as an example of an organization that by its very nature has to achieve this kind of stability, since it must maintain order and organization but be able to drop everything immediately to perform its most important duty.   I think faculty are more like park rangers dealing with forest fires – a controlled burn is healthy for the ecosystem while both raging forest fires and complete fire suppression turn out to be unhealthy.

So, I’ve been trying to think about how we can maintain that true stability Robbins describes, or at least get closer to it.  In my personal quest, I’ve experimented with just about every type of productivity enhancing gimmick and gizmo out there.  Some work for me, some others may work for you.  If you want some specific ideas, I’m happy to share them.  But mostly what I come back to is an attitude adjustment – this IS our work.  Our job is to help students grow and develop as learners and as people.  We are the park rangers; balance is what we do.

So what are some ways that we can balance more effectively? In the classroom I find that pre-planning course activities very thoroughly and having backups for the times when the technology fails or an activity bombs gives me the confidence to try something new that might not work.  I know if the fire gets out of control, I have resources to bring it back under control.   But if I get too attached to my plan or my syllabus, then I don’t take advantage of those learning opportunities that arise unexpectedly, no spark gets lit, and my class becomes rigid, dull and overgrown with weeds.  Stopping, asking questions, listening closely to students and reading their nonverbal behaviors can tell you if they are lighting up or not.

Outside of class, maintaining a good balance between order and disorder for me means trying to find technology that makes my life easier, like using Gmail labels and stars, saving files in Dropbox so I can access them from anywhere, and using an online to do list (I use Toodledo, despite the stupid name).  It’s doing a regular “mind dump” of every single thing I am supposed to be working on and then identifying what actions need to be taken when.  It’s building in Friday afternoon reflection time to tie up the loose ends, update the list for next week, and then allowing myself some down time.  We all have different ways of maintaining balance. Some people only check their email at certain times each day.  Others prepare a week’s worth of food on the weekend and live on the leftovers.  None of these strategies always works but at least we’re acknowledging the issue and trying to figure it out.  The important part again, is not getting so rigidly organized that your life goes up in flames when a student or a colleague or a family member suddenly needs more time than you expected.  If you have systems in place, you can quickly figure out what’s most important and bookmark the rest so you can get back to it when the crisis is over.   And you can share your strategies with your students too, as you help them figure out how to structure and prepare for your course.

Sometimes though, the fire just gets out of control.  Then we often ignore, rationalize and intellectualize the situation to avoid that anxious feeling of being overwhelmed.  When students do this, we shake our heads in disbelief.  How could they not have anticipated this problem?  Didn’t they see the smoke? Then we go and do the same.   But most of them have a lot less life experience than most of us do, so why do we expect that they will know what to do?  What helps you when you’re in an overload situation?  Could that same strategy help your students?

So how is this post a “teaching tip”?  Good question.  As I write I think the message I’m getting from that big teaching tip generator in the sky is that we should have more compassion for ourselves AND our students as we juggle the demands of 21st century living.  Faculty and students alike try, succeed for awhile, get behind and then have to recover.  We hope it’s an upward spiral but it’s certainly a lifelong learning process. Could it be that one of the most important things we need to help our students learn is how to balance order and disorder in their lives? Especially for freshmen, helping students develop better life management skills is critical if they are to succeed in their classes, at the University and for life.  Some people will undoubtedly think that this should not be our problem.  Students should have learned this already, they shouldn’t need us to “hold their hands” or teach them things we learned on their own.  All I can say is – our students are where they are.  If this is what will help them learn more effectively, that’s what they need.  We have to deal with the fire in front of us, not the well-tended garden we think we ought to have.

According to Allen, “your ability to deal with surprise, elegantly and proactively, is your personal and organizational competitive edge. You just need to ensure that your systems can keep things under control from any angle, with appropriate distinctions between what’s movable and what’s not. Then turning on a dime is an effortless spin instead of a clumsy crash and burn.”

How did you develop life management skills yourself?  How can we help students develop theirs?

LRC, Smarthinking, Students in Class: What Can Peer Review Do for You?

In this blog, I give a pep talk for peer review, introduce USF’s CLAQWA rubric, and identify the fall 2011 LRC writing tutors.

As anyone who’s been through a WI workshop knows, I’m a fan of carefully guided peer review.  Even expert writers need feedback from readers as they draft and revise.  Discussing work in progress can engage students more deeply with the material; thinking about how a text conveys its message can building reading as well as writing skills.  Well done, peer review is a win-win assignment—creating an opportunity for student learning and smoothing papers’ roughest edges before you comment or grade.

But many of us have also had experiences when peer review failed, giving students false confidence, for instance, after a round of vacuous “good job” comments.


The key to worthwhile peer review lies in the guidance you provide.  When the University of South Florida academic assessment team piloted a structured peer review process in several courses, it made many faculty converts.  Engineering professor Ralph Fehr commented,

“When introduced to the peer review process, I was somewhat skeptical as to how much, if any, it would improve the quality of the students’ writing. I was doubtful that the results would justify the effort put into the review process. After several semesters of participation in the Peer Review Pilot Project, I have seen substantial improvement in the organization and structure of most of the essays evaluated. I have also observed an increased level of collaboration and interaction among the students in non-writing assignments, which I am confident is a result of the peer review training. I will continue to integrate the peer review process into my courses to allow my students to continue to improve their communication skills.”

USF uses a rubric called the CLAQWA.  You can get a sense of it from USF’s 2006 “Assessment Brief.”  I’m on the trail of the revised version mentioned (emails are bouncing), to post on our MUIR wiki.  You can preview it in Appendix B of Irene Suzanne Penner’s 2010 dissertation, “Comparison of Effects of Cognitive Level and Quality Writing Assessment (CLAQWA) Rubric on Freshman College Student Writing.” 

In straightforward language, the CLAQWA looks at 15 “traits,” elaborating five criteria under each one.  I leave one as an example in my outline summary below:


Level Trait 1: Assignment Requirements

Level Trait 2: Main Idea

5 The writer clearly has and maintains a main idea throughout.

4 The main idea is clear, although a rare extraneous element is introduced.

3 The paper has a main idea, but additional unrelated ideas distract the reader.

2 The main idea is not maintained or it is unclear.

1 The paper lacks a main idea or appears to reflect the writer’s “free association.”

Level Trait 3: Audience

Level Trait 4: Purpose


Level Trait 5: Opening

Level Trait 6: Coherence Devices

Level Trait 7: Paragraph Construction

Level Trait 8: Closing


Level Trait 9: Reasoning

Level Trait 10: Quality of Details

Level Trait 11: Quantity of Details


Level Trait 12: Word Choice

Level Trait 13: Comprehensibility

Level Trait 14: Sentence Construction

Level Trait 15: Point of View


Level Trait 16: Grammar and Mechanics [I don’t know why this is out of order in Penner’s appendix]

A number of peer review rubrics/guidelines are circulating on the Web, up for “citation” and adaptation.  I’m happy to go searching for a model that might work for your class.


Don’t forget the notion of “guidance” if you recommend that your students use the LRC.  You can arm your students with specific questions so that the peer tutor doesn’t have to try to make sense of the whole paper in half an hour.  Your student might say, “My professor asked me to come here to talk about my introduction … to see if my body paragraphs tie back to my thesis … to think about introducing quotes in my paper….”  Remind students to bring your written assignment with them to the LRC.

The LRC will be missing Liz Messman this fall (and moving to a trailer, temporarily, at some date TBA), but it has a great staff.  I hope to have some ongoing conversations with the writing tutors.

I met some of them at the segment of training Liz gave last week:

    1. (veteran) Erica Prong, graduate assistant in the humanities
    2. (veteran—but she’s on study abroad this fall, I believe) Erin Evans, psychology
    3. (new) Krysti Hartman, fashion merchandising
    4. (new) Anna Macedonia, art education
    5. (new) Niven McCall, history
    6. (new) Adrianne Morris, English
    7. (new) Nicholas Papadakis, politics (and philosophy, I believe he said)
    8. (new) Melany Su, biology
    9. (new) Casey Trottier, business

Also on the writing list but not at that training:

  1. (new) Rochelle Coates, graphic design (will do makeup training)
  2. (veteran) Rachael Raske, psychology (she’s done writing training before)
  3. (veteran) Cyndi Trang, biology (she’s done writing training before)

Click here for a list of the entire staff.


There’s now a tab in Blackboard that will take students to Smarthinking (no need to go through tools).  Preliminary data from last year’s pilot suggests a good result: LRC use was up slightly despite the introduction of Smarthinking’s online “e-structor” feedback, which student writers often sought when the LRC was closed.  Again, remind your students to cut and paste from your assignment (this is not the place for guesstimating!) into Smarthinking.  You may ask students to attach a copy of their feedback.

If you’re working with peer review, let me know how it goes.  And please, feed our bank of materials on the wiki!

~Sylvia, x6478

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!

Teaching Tip: Looking back to move forward

At this point in the semester, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you try some new approach to your teaching.   Instead, I’d like to share an idea that could help you develop your own teaching tips.

On my faculty developers’ listserv, we have been discussing the practice of writing an end of semester “case study” of one or more classes.   At one institution, every instructor is asked to critically examine each of their courses and reflect in writing on what went well, what did not go so well, potential ways to improve the course for the next offering, etc. This exercise was not part of the annual summative evaluation (although it might come in very handy), but was meant to provide a useful structure for analyzing and reviewing teaching progress.

Now, I think most of us do some kind of basic looking back at the end of the semester, but I don’t know if anyone at Marymount is doing anything quite this comprehensive (if you are, let me know!).  When I read about it, I first thought that it would take a non-trivial amount of time, particularly if taken seriously.  However, I think that the process would provide benefits that might just make that time worthwhile.  These are the benefits I see (so far anyway):

  • If you only teach a course once a year (or even less), it’s hard to remember what you intended to change unless you keep some kind of records.  While I tend to scrawl a few notes on the old syllabus and assignment sheets and throw them into the course folder, after a year these often seem incomplete and sometimes incomprehensible.  How the future me would appreciate a thoughtful analysis in complete sentences! And since the future me is the only person who gets this, I don’t have to worry about editing it for public viewing.
  • I’m pretty convinced that I would actually process more deeply and learn more from writing up my reflections than even just thinking deeply.  If there is one thing I believe in more every semester, it’s the power of writing to actually help thinking happen, not just record the thinking that occurred.  Writing is learning, and I want to learn things that will help me teach more effectively.
  • I think using this process could help me remember points I want to make about my teaching performance during the annual assessment process, for example by identifying teaching strengths and weaknesses and show how I am addressing them.  So, this process could save time while writing that document, since essentially I will have done some of the work for it in advance.
  • Finally, this process will help me identify where I want to improve as an instructor, what kind of reading I should be doing or what kind of sessions to attend at teaching conferences and what questions I want to ask my colleagues about how they handle specific teaching issues.

A couple of listserv responders suggested possible questions and formats for a course review or case study.  One is fairly structured toward the course itself and asks questions like:

  • What do I think of the course’s learning objectives?  How might they need to be changed and how hard would that be?  Do they feed into other courses or program objectives?
  • How well did students meet each objective?  What evidence am I using and is there better evidence that I could collect?  How well can I even judge how well students met each objective?  Was there an objective I really didn’t measure that well, or at all?
  • Did my assignments help students to meet my course objectives?  Do some of my assignments not really relate to any of my course objectives and goals?
  • Was the time I and my students spent on assignments and activities (e.g. completing assignments, giving feedback for and grading assignments, planning class activities) worth the academic payoff?

Another, more global approach was suggested by independent consultant Alice Cassidy and focuses on the classic paper, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Chickering & Gamson (1987).  Don’t be put off by the title if you teach graduate students.  The concepts are universal.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourages active learning,
  4. Gives prompt feedback,
  5. Emphasizes time on task,
  6. Communicates high expectations, and
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Cassidy asks instructors to reflect on how they are implementing each of the 7 principles as well as thinking about the following three questions:

* What do you do in class time, in meetings with students and through design of assignments?  How do you take part in professional development activities to explore more about these?

* In what ways do you document your work through a teaching portfolio/dossier or other material?

* When and how do you explain these to your students?

I’m definitely going to try this approach after my final grades are in.  If you already do something like this, please share your process with us, or other thoughts you have about ways we can learn from our teaching experiences.