How Humans Learn: Failure

The ADEIL book group has been reading How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua R. Eyler. After reviewing fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Eyler saw that humans learn when there is curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and failure; below are a few takeaways from his chapter on failure.

Eyler opens his final chapter with a quote from Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error: “Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world” (171).

Failure is omnipresent. So much of learning comes from finding and correcting errors. Babies are constantly learning through trial and error. “When the expectancies about the structure of a baby’s world are violated, the learning begins” (179). However, as failing often has negative consequences, it becomes stigmatized. In education, students so often focus more on which steps will avoid failure instead of taking chances with assignments or projects that might jeopardize their grade; given the serious consequences failing can incur – potential loss of scholarship from low GPA, delayed graduation (and increased education expenses) because of retaking a class, etc. – it makes sense that students would want to avoid failure.

However, students need to be able to make mistakes; their brains “spark and grow” when mistakes happens (196). To help destigmatize failure, we can talk about our own failings, perhaps our own misunderstandings of course materials as students, or challenges we’ve overcome. As students keep trying to understand a concept, we can keep trying new ways to present the concept.

“With productive failure, everything depends on the design of the task we give to students” (204). We can offer low-stakes activities where students can explore a subject without fear of what mistakes they might make. We can scaffold assignments so that they become more difficult or complex, giving them a chance to make connections gradually. We can also think about how we design our gradebook. Eyler offers an example of a teacher who has students, as part of their final grade, reflect on their failures and what they’ve learned from them.

For additional reading on failure, read:

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