Try, try and try again: what scope is there in higher education for learning from getting things wrong?

“Failure is instructive.  The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” 

John Dewey

The adage “learn from your mistakes” is a familiar one.  SisyphusIt implies that getting things wrong can – and perhaps should – be a formative experience.  By making mistakes, we self-reflect and analyse what led to an error being made in order to better understand what we are trying to resolve and thereby succeed when we try again.  In doing this we perhaps emerge with a more sophisticated level of understanding than we might have gained had our initial attempt at something been successful.  The idea of “learning from mistakes” also carries with it the implicit recognition that life, actually, is messy and convoluted and that everyone, at some point, is going to get something wrong.  In other words, mistakes are not necessarily bad and they’re certainly not completely avoidable.

But is the adage true?  Is getting things wrong useful for future learning or do errors just compound misconceptions and poor understanding?  If it is true, do we, as the providers of a higher education, sufficiently acknowledge the occurrence and value of getting things wrong?  Should we, in fact, deliberately ‘design-in’ to our curricula the potential/likelihood of student error as useful and instructive learning opportunities?  As importantly, do we need to consider how students perceive error?  Do they see the value of making mistakes and getting things wrong or does failure undermine their confidence?  Does it stimulate resistance to learning or does it encourage openness?

For the next SoTL Network meeting we will begin to look at some of these questions by considering the work of  Carol Dweck and colleagues working across the fields of developmental, personal, and social psychology.  Dweck has examined, mostly in the context of primary and secondary level education, how and why individual students respond to challenge and failure.  She maintains that her research has identified what she terms mastery-oriented students who strive harder for mastery of a subject in response to failure  while others appear to experience failure as a direct attack on personal self-esteem and motivation.  These responses, she argues, are rooted in individuals’ beliefs in whether intelligence is fixed (entity-theorists) or malleable and improved through effort (incremental-theorists). She also proposes that our teaching and feedback techniques can manipulate students’ belief in the fixity or malleability of intelligence and help foster mastery-orientation even if the predominant response of particular students to difficulty and failure tends towards helplessness.

Dweck’s work picks up on some of the issues that emerged in our previous discussion on deep/surface approaches to learning; arguably adding a more nuanced theoretical framework and solid evidence base to some of the vagaries of that earlier theory.   This is not, however, to suggest that Dweck is immune to criticism. Indeed, critics of her rising influence within debates on primary education in the US have noted that the seductive simplicity of her ideas can too easily be co-opted into a narrower claim that academic success is determined by students demonstrating “grit” or resilience in the face of adversity (rather than, say, acknowledging systematic problems with the educational system and the impact of social contexts on individual students’ self-belief, confidence and ability).  Given that her influence has been more significant in debates on primary and secondary education (and in the US at that), perhaps our main overarching question for the session will therefore be to consider the relevance of her work to adult learners in Higher Education.

Other questions might include:

  • Do you identify with Dweck’s theory a) as a learner and b) as a teacher? Do you hold the same mindset belief for yourself and for your students? (Dweck’s mindset questionnaire is widely available online if you want to evaluate yourself!)
  • Is this a theoretical framework for thinking about learning from failure, or is it more about fostering student resilience to failure – i.e. does it risk supporting an assumption, commonly expressed in the media in particular, that millennials lack “grit,” are risk averse, can’t cope with failure, and expect to be coddled at University?
  • Are you convinced by Dweck’s claim that students’ views of intelligence can be successfully manipulated through the teaching and feedback strategies she proposes?  Would this work as well with adult learners as it does with children?
  • What might be the consequences for Dweck’s theory on how we assess students? Does the UK higher education system (for example the frequent ongoing summative assessment that is often a characteristic of modular organisation) offer opportunities or obstacles?
  • Published in 2000, Self-Theories is a summation, aimed at a general readership, of Dweck’s extensive collaborative primary research on the subject, and marks a shift late in her career towards focusing on promoting her ideas to a more mainstream public audience, supplemented by a proliferation of TED Talks, blogs and media articles from her supporters. Does this popularisation risk an over-simplification of her primary research that potentially filters it through the distorting lens of the “self-help” industry? “

On the basis of this discussion, it would be possible for a future SoTL meeting to explore research on particular strategies that have been used to try and enhance learning in higher education contexts through exposing students to challenge and failure.

Meeting Report

Although Dweck’s research focuses  on primary and secondary age groups, many of the behaviours that she observed in children when they were faced with challenging tasks had immediate resonance with the experience that members of the groups have encountered with their own degree-level students.  For example, with a little extrapolation, possible insight can be gained into why, when students are offered follow-up one-to-one support after receiving assessment marks, it seems to be those students who don’t actually need the additional support who turn up whereas those who would benefit from extra guidance stay away.  Likewise, we could find explanations for why feedback might not be collected or, if it is collected, does not seem to have any real discernible positive effect on learning, and why students’ attendance at lectures is not always what we might expect it to be.

There is a danger, when research observations chime so closely with personal experience, that the familiarity of the behaviours being discussed validates the explanations provided to explain those behaviours.  However, the group expressed some reservations.  Some felt that the work rested on an assumption of what constitutes ‘intelligence’ and that the assumption itself can be contested.  Others were concerned about the interrelationship between questions of intelligence and questions of capability in certain intellectual areas (e.g. mathematics or problem-solving).  There was also concern about some reductive aspects of  the research.  In particular, the group questioned the use of questionnaires, which provide limited dichotomous responses to questions, being the basis upon which to pre-categorise children into particular motivation or personality groups.  It was noted that the conclusions from the research were often dependent upon the validity of these questionnaires and the accuracy with which they allowed students to be categorised in the first place.  On a slightly different line, it was also highlighted that Dweck’s research has itself become somewhat hijacked by an agenda positing the need for twenty-first century children to develop more resilience, in effect divorcing their ability to respond to the challenges of the modern world from the influence of the societal context within which they are growing up.    In this respect, some of the scholarly concerns that have been expressed relating to the psychology-based research into conceptions of the self might also be considered (e.g. Martin 2004).

Reservations aside, however, the research did ignite some interesting discussion.  One point related back to the group’s previous consideration of Howie and Bagnell’s (2013) critique of the concepts of Deep and Surface Learning.  A central pillar of Howie and Bagnell’s argument is that deep and surface learning assumed a paradigmatic status without sufficient critical engagement with, and research into, the underlying premises upon which the concepts are based.  The group thought that, arguably, Dweck’s research might actually provide some useful empirical evidence which could be applied to explore the validity of the concepts; indeed the lack of linkages between the European/Australasian-focused deep/surface learning work and Dweck’s north American-focused research is noticeable.

Beyond that, much of the discussion revolved around a consideration of students’ ability to respond to challenge and getting things wrong and if/how they can be supported in seeing such instances of difficulty as positive learning experiences rather than as a reflection of personal failure.  A key issue here is assessment and the concept of ‘testing’ more generally, particularly given that students who come to university have already progressed through fourteen years of an educational system where they have been subject to continual testing, much of which seems more about monitoring performance, diagnosing ability and categorising accordingly than it does about formative support for the students themselves and their learning.  Is it possible, within a 3 or 4 year programme, to deconstruct a mindset which has been hitherto conditioned by a system which values  getting things right, rather than acknowledging the value of getting things wrong?  Further, does the modularised system within which we work, where some form of high-stakes summative assessment is never far away, allow us to ‘build in’ an environment where making mistakes is seen as, and used as, a positive thing?  For the latter to be achieved genuinely, time is needed: time to try things out without being penalised when they go wrong, time to come at issues from different directions, time to take a step back and devise strategies which will address intellectual obstacles.  However, higher education curricula have little such temporal flexibility: they are structured by deadlines and timetabled classes which themselves are structured by content which needs to be covered.  Of course, the situation we face is made even more complex when we take into account one-year Masters programmes and the expectations and educational backgrounds of international students.  It is worth adding here that the group noted none of the research Dweck referenced in the readings seemed to involve the children undertaking high-stakes assessed work.  It may be that there is  scope for engaging with Dweck’s work while designing formative assessment, but even in these instances we might be sceptical that students would necessarily be willing to be open to the idea of “displaying ignorance and risking … confusion and errors” (Dweck 1999, 16).

Despite these, perhaps unassailable challenges, an awareness of Dweck’s research does provide an additional avenue of possible insight into the complexities of student learning and its implications for how we teach.  Certainly, it provides a particular perspective that allowed some of the group to start thinking about ways of supporting the kind of learning we want students to engage within during their time at university.



Works Cited

Dweck, C. (1999) Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development.  Essays in Social Psychology Series.  Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Howie, P. and Bagnell, R. (2013) A Critique of Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning, Teaching in Higher Education 18(4), 289-400.

Martin, J. (2004) The Educational Inadequacy of Conceptions of Self in Educational Psychology, Interchange 35(2), 185-208.

Agreed and suggested texts are available in the Paperpile folders for the Network. All members are automatically given access to these folders.


One thought on “Try, try and try again: what scope is there in higher education for learning from getting things wrong?

  1. Pingback: Making Life Difficult: Testing to Improve Learning | Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Network

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