Conquering the fear of failure: innovating my teaching to improve students’ learning

This week my third year students have been confronting their fear of failure.

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “fail fast, fail often” because it hides a bigger set of issues rather too neatly. Failure, as part of a process of experimentation, is a by-product, not a target. Frequent failure may well be a sign of healthy innovation, but it’s not something to actually aim for. More importantly, an innovation process or culture needs some resources to soak up failure. Pedalling the ideology that noble failure is a positive outcome for start up businesses is unhelpful if they lack the resource to sustain themselves through that failure. Incubators like our the bseen programme at BCU provide a structure that could help sustain startups through useful failures, as do larger corporate structures (consider the classic case study of the Post It note).

A university course is also a safe structure in which ideas can fail, and through which students can learn. By this I don’t mean failing the course, but I mean trying ideas, and learning from the experience of trying, while protected from the economic impact of failure. To paraphrase something I’ve said and I’ve heard colleagues say “you’ll never get this much time, space and resource to do new and interesting things (and get them wrong)”.
We all know that the formal summative assessment (the ones that deliver the grades) loom large in the minds of our students, and so “the assignment” become something which can cast a long shadow over an entire module. Fear of failing summative assessments can in some cases restrict the students in their learning. We often use a model for web & new media (and other specialist) modules of 5 weeks teaching, followed by a project proposal which is assessed, followed by 5 more weeks and then a final assignment which involves delivering a project. When we do that we ask students to either base all of their project work on the first 5 weeks, or project themselves into an unknown future by signing up to deliver a project based on future learning. Most will take the former approach over the later as it is safer, which can mean that they are less engaged with later course topics.

From this semester I’ve made a number of changes to our third year specialist web module. The key change is the way in which I’m running summative assessment. The students now propose a project at the end of the module, after they have engaged with all of the topics, and not in week 6. They actually have something like 8 weeks to synthesise all of the module and prepare a proposal for a new web / tech based project or business which is submitted next year. They don’t need to build the thing that they propose, so they don’t need to limit their ideas to their own skills. By allowing them to do learning before codifying it, and by removing a key failure fear factor (“I need to be able to build this thing but I don’t know how good I’m at X & Y yet”) I’ve removed some really fundamental barriers for them*. My hope, of course is that this a richer learning experience for them.

Of course, this isn’t something I can map into all of my modules. This is grounded in learning outcomes, which flow from course philosophy and module aims. This particular activity speaks to this learning outcome:

2. produce a business plan which ensures the financial, organisational and cultural success of the SME taking account of the regional network of cultural industries. (knowledge and understanding; intellectual skills; practical skills; transferable skills)

This learning outcome asks the students to see themselves as part of a network of creative workers, and so the proposal should speak to that: who can you work with to realise this project? Can’t code PHP? Fine, where will you find a PHP coder and how much will that cost you? Build that into your project.There’s no need for this to happen any sooner than the end of the module, when they have an overview of all the learning activities and topics we’ve engaged with, and the other learning outcomes don’t require that this project is realised beyond the production of a rationale and plan. The build was a barrier, it’s gone, so what will the students come up with, now failure isn’t a problem?

Some students were struggling to come up with an idea to build into a proposal. In week 1 we mapped interesting ideas that were “hot” in technology and digital culture. In week 2 we came back to those ideas and discussed possible ideas for web/digital start ups that would tap into some of this zeitgeist trend mapping. We struggled to really get ideas moving. Move forward to week 8. 

The students are probably bored of hearing me explain why I’ve turned this module upside down for them, but they’ve had time for the idea to bed in. After a problem based learning activity which considered the topic of “failure” we moved on to an activity in ideas generation. The link here: in the right environment you could develop and launch lots of ideas, looking for one that strikes a chord – so you’re going to need some ideas.

The brief for the task was simple and open: think of something that bothers you which you could solve with digital technology; produce 10 ideas in 10 minutes. I sensed that the students, perhaps mindful of how this went earlier in the module, felt that this was a big ask. We hit the target in under 7 minutes. And then we amped it up.

#50×50: Fifty ideas, fifty minutes. No idea is a bad idea. Each idea must be communicable as a tweet.

Here’s what the studens came up with**. They actually found 60 new ideas in 42 minutes. I think their fear of failure has been overcome.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: