Failure as reflective learning

In recent years, educators have been exploring failure as a learning tool for students.  This has especially been targeted to address resiliency ability in students to bounce back from any perceived failures.  The lack of resiliency has led to many mental health issues.  As many higher education professionals know, students’ mental health issues have been at the forefront of our thoughts for so long now.  We are seeing students who cannot get over any setbacks they have, which may lead to more stress in their lives.  We see students who think they don’t belong because they are comparing themselves to everyone around them.  They don’t think they are good enough, leading to the impostor syndrome. They see themselves as failures, and that is a “bad” word.

Because of this trend, educators are now implementing failure acknowledgements into their curriculum and campus programs.  Recently, Smith College introduced the “Failing Well” program where students fill out a failure resume throughout a school year and discuss periodically with a campus community member.  When the students start the program, they get an agreement of sorts that states “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.” Through the “Failing Well” program the college is giving permission to fail, which students may come with a preconceived notion that this was not an option in order to succeed.

Smith’s failure resume has become a form of reflective learning for Smith College students. By naming a time when the student experienced a failure, they are reflecting back on the experience as a whole.  They are thinking about what led to the situation, how they felt about it, and what actions (if any) they took after.  When the student reflects on the experience it becomes a part of the learning cycle.  By acknowledging failure and saying that it is ok to do so helps the students embrace this important facet of learning.


There are other examples of higher education institutions also implementing some form of failure acknowledgement programs.  From Harvard University to University of Texas at Austin, institutions are paying more attention to this area that may be lacking in students’ learning ability.  Additionally, K-12 education research is taking on failure as a learning tool.  Columbia University has just begun the Education for Persistence & Innovation Center to increase more research of failure as a learning motivator.

Let them fail, but let’s also give them the tools to bounce back.  More reasons to implement reflective learning in our practice.


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