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Failure and Ignorance: 2 Neglected Keys to College Success

Professors need to be more ignorant; students need to fail more.

I met this morning with a bright, motivated group of Psi Chi students at my school who are exploring “best practices” for college students. We’ve been talking topics including motivation, peer collaboration, and MOOCs.  Today the discussion turned to Carol Dweck’s wonderful work on “mindset.” (Her book is called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”) One of her basic findings is that what counts in student success is not whether students fail, but how they respond to failure

Dweck talks about two mindsets, fixed and growth. Students with a fixed mindset do not respond well to failure. They believe that people have a fixed level of intelligence, and that there’s nothing to be done after failing a test.  Dweck found:  “As a result, they avoid a challenge and they were not resilient in the face of failure.”

Students with a growth mindset believe that by expending effort people can improve their intelligence and skills.  Thus, they know that “failure was part of growth.”  What these students do in the face of failure is to see it as a challenge and develop new skills.  Dweck says students can learn a growth mindset by being praised for “the process … effort, strategy, taking on hard tasks, persisting in the face of obstacles.”  Students learn how to expend effort more effectively, and how to continue to learn. 

This idea is nothing new (although Dweck has collected lots of data to support what she says); others have noted that to become creative we need to “learn how to fail.” In his blog, Michael Michalko defines failure as a situation in which “you have produced some other result instead of your original goal.” He provides some interesting examples of failures by folks including Abraham Lincoln, J. K. Rowling, and Walt Disney.    



In our research group we also talk about what teachers can do to make the learning experience better.  If we know that failure can be a growth- (mindset-) producing activity for students, then the flip side, of course, is that professors need to provide (a) challenges, (b) good feedback, and (c) opportunities, and praise, for learning new strategies. Often, I’ll get on my soapbox about how I other professors need to get more challenging and active in the classroom.  Otherwise, we’re little more than in-person MOOCs.

After our group today I was checking my email (students, of course, usually have the luxury of doing that in class…), when I ran across a reference to an article in “Inside Higher Education” by Scott Newkirk, a professor of English at Rhodes College.  It’s called “A Plea for ‘Close Learning.’”  That title was catchy enough, with its oblique reference to distance learning.  But even more interesting was his mention of the work of Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist at Columbia, who’s written a book entitled “Ignorance: How it Drives Science.”  Newkirk describes Firestein’s idea this way:  “Discouraged by students regurgitating his lectures without internalizing the complexity of scientific inquiry, Firestein created a seminar to which he invited his colleagues to discuss what they don't know. As Firestein repeatedly emphasizes, it is informed ignorance, not information, that is the genuine ‘engine’ of knowledge.”

     What’s the connecting link between the twin pillars of failure and ignorance?  There are probably hundreds, but I’ll leave you with one:  They both involve having students engage in processes and learn skills that go beyond note-taking and ingesting information.   Those in higher education are also being asked to broaden our goals from dispensing knowledge to teaching those skills more explicitly (see the Essential Learning Outcomes published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities).  Have you seen some course syllabi recently?  Professors are increasingly letting students know that they will be learning to do things, not just know things, in their college courses.

Ain’t this a kick in the pants for professors?  After years and years of accumulating knowledge and demonstrating their knowledge through tests, oral examinations, publications, presentations, boring our friends at parties ... we’re now being asked to demonstrate our ignorance, and the processes we use to overcome it. 


Author’s Note:  Thanks to Joan Bihun for her helpful comments on this post.  Any ignorance that is displayed, however, is mine.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).


© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved