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Failure Isn't Fun, But It Can Be Productive

It isn't just knowledge we gain by coming up short and trying again.

Key points

  • Productive failures throughout the learning process might lead to greater knowledge.
  • Students who received information and instruction as needed received better outcomes.
  • Working through challenges as we go can also build knowledge and resilience.
Praveen Gupta/Unsplash
Source: Praveen Gupta/Unsplash

It was a lecture-style class. The professor stood up front, with a lapel microphone clipped on. The 100-ish or so students sat in wooden desks that were bolted to the ground, in tiers.

The professor wore a tie that looked like a fish. Each day. A new tie. A new fish. I know because I was there. Every. Single. Day. Alert. Focused. I took so many notes. Studied hard.

And, I failed. It was devastating. I'd gotten A's in every other class. And, economics was a required class for journalism students. I needed to pass it to graduate. So, I took it again. And, then, again.

I’m thinking of this now, as my daughter begins her sophomore year in high school. I think about it often, actually, much more often than the classes I did well in. More often than my successes.

Maybe that's because while I was struggling to learn economics, I was also learning resilience and determination. Two things that have served me well in the years since. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. Then, I just needed to learn economics, figure out the lessons, and pass the class.

Productive Failures Improve Learning

Today, that figuring-out process might be considered a “productive failure.” Research by Sunita G. Chowrira at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues found that students learn better when, instead of receiving comprehensive, detailed instruction at the outset of the lesson, they are given little instruction and challenged to figure it out as they go.

Chowrira studied first-year biology students. One group of students received extensive instruction about the lesson before beginning the work. The other group did a chapter reading before class and then worked to complete the assignments. Those students were given immediate feedback, as needed, on the parts of the lesson they weren’t getting right.

That group did record more “failures” along the way, but in the end, they got higher test scores and seemed to assimilate the knowledge better. Failing to grasp the knowledge and then trying again seemed to improve learning. Productive failure.

I’m experiencing this now in a writer’s workshop. Each week we write and submit our stuff and the group offers constructive criticism. I am using the workshop to tackle a new type of writing project, one I'm not practiced in or skilled at. And there is no clear instruction.

So, each week, I turn in a piece, and I hear about the things I did well, and also the things I didn’t do well. Instead of focusing on the highlights, we spend the most time talking about the so-called failures, places where there are gaps in my writing knowledge and technique. Then before moving on to the next writer, the workshop leader offers some brief instructions about things I can do to improve.

I return to my desk the next day, rework the writing, rewrite the chapter, and bring it back to the group. The feedback that second time around is almost always positive.

But what has surprised me is how fast I'm learning, how much I'm improving. I'm able to immediately apply the feedback I'm getting. I see how it strengthens the piece right away. And, my work is also becoming more imaginative, experimental, and compelling. The process is certainly productive.

The excitement I'm feeling about this process has led me to rethink how I parent my daughter too. Perhaps we do learn best when we have to find our way through, apply what we are learning as we go, even at the risk of multiple, early failures.

In the end, being able to apply the knowledge we've acquired from all of our productive failures to complete a solid chapter or get a good test score feels much more satisfying. There is a greater sense of confidence and accomplishment when we've found our way through a challenge.

That's what I most want my daughter to learn: that she is capable of figuring things out, finding her way, and learning all along.

So, what about economics? Well, it took an army of tutors and daily study sessions. I cried. I sweated, I complained. But, in the end—in the very, very end—I passed.

And though I didn't know it at the time, the failures were productive, not just because I learned a little about economics, but because I also learned the value of effort, persistence, and resilience. Not a bad lesson for life.

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