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This issue of CDTL Brief features the teaching practices of some 2006/2007 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

October 2008, Vol. 11 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Learning from Failures
Dr Pang Sze Dai
Department of Civil Engineering

In a meritocratic society, the emphasis on success and achievement often cause us to underestimate the importance of failure in an individual’s learning and development. An individual brought up in a culture that thrives on success can be oblivious to the valuable lessons that can be learnt from failures. To make matters worse, the social stigma associated with failure drives one to seek the easiest path to achieve the desired results and avoid experimenting with the unknown or venture into uncharted territories, which could have offered an entirely different but enriching learning realm.

There is No Innovation Without Failure
While no one likes to be labelled a failure, it is through repeated trials and failures that the greatest successes in life are achieved. Many great inventors have failed umpteen times before they arrived at their final product. Indeed, it is through repeated experimentations that they learn something more about their problems. One of the key attributes an individual must possess in order to learn from failure is perseverance— an essential trait for training our minds to thinkcritically and laterally. As Thomas Edison said “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Thus failure can be viewed as another opportunity to learn something new.

Creating a Culture of Failing in Order to Learn More
However, not all failures are honourable and we should not encourage those which are caused by a lack of effort or minimal competency. Rather, we have to create a culture in which students are encouraged to try out new ideas in a wellorganised manner while the intended outcome plays a secondary role, as long as students participate in a critical evaluation of the outcome. Failures that arise from risk-taking should not be criticised, but the effort should be recognised and acknowledged. Sloane (2003) aptly describes the conducive environment for innovations: “If you give people freedom to innovate, the freedom to experiment, the freedom to succeed, then you must also give them the freedom to fail” (p. 95). In a classroom environment, Matson (1991) successfully developed the concept ofthe benefits of failure in his course Failure 101 in Penn State University by rewarding students academic grades if they failed in their experiments with new ideas.

How Should We Assess?
Our assessment of student learning is often tied to the achievement of intended learning outcomes. How then should we assess our students if failure is a key component in learning? Students’ desire to learn more often terminates when they have obtained the answer to a problem. This is because the fear of failure is their motivation for learning. Thus our continual assessment should be tweaked to encourage students to experiment with new ideas which could invite mistakes. Recognising and acknowledging students’ willingness to try new ideas helps develop students’ interest in the subject and drives them to explore new frontiers. Thus instead of narrowly-focussed questions asking for a specific solution, more open-ended problems in the form of a project should be incorporated into our assessment to encourage students to explore various solutions. For example, in the modules I teach (ESP2109 “Design Project” and CE3166 “Structural Steel Systems”), project-based assignments form part of the continual assessment. The following criteria are considered in the project-based assignments:

• Does the proposed solution add to the complexity of the problem?

• Does the student have a rational basis for his solution?

• Does the student have a proper plan to carry out his proposed solution?

• Does the student have a contingency plan if the proposed solution fails?• In the event that the proposed solution fails, how does the student reflect and learn from the failure?

• How does the student make use of the lessons learnt to improve on his contingency plans?

Knowledge vs. Learning
The next question would be whether assessment should be based on what students have learnt or how much knowledge have they acquired from the course? The former requires students to demonstrate what they have learnt by experimenting with ideas and drawing new knowledge from failures, while the latter is a demonstration of their knowledge before and after the course. Both kinds of assessments are equally important because they play crucial roles in an individual’s learning process. If students demonstrate the knowledge they have acquired through the course, they should be rewarded for their competency in carrying out the required investigation as this is a desired learning outcome. Likewise, if students have planned carefully and tried some unconventional strategies but failed to get the intended results, students should still be rewarded for their ideas and their spirit of innovation. To sum it up with Lao Tzu’s saying: “Failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved.”

Matson, J.V. (1991). “Failure 101: Rewarding Failure in the Classroom to Stimulate Creative Behaviour”. Journal of Creative Behaviour, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp 81–85.

Sloane, P. (2003). The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills: Powerful Problem-Solving Techniques to Ignite Your Team’s Potential. Philadelphia, PA: Kogan Page.


 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
A Teaching Re-evaluation
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
Teaching: A Learning Process for Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
Engaging the Phenomenon
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
Learning from Failures
Learning Through Teaching