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The Importance of Failure in the Classroom

Teaching assistant lectures to a class.

In his essay, “Teaching to Fail,” Edward Burger reminds the reader that learning is not a destination at which a person arrives and then resides permanently. Rather, learning is a life-long personal journey of trial and error, which, for both academics and professionals, is the “secret formula” for success.

As opposed to the “sanitized conclusions” lacking substance and background that are often fed to students, Burger stresses that the process of failing – hitting a dead end and then, armed with fresh insight and new understanding, trying a different tack over and over again – ensures both “original scholarly discovery and wise, everyday thinking for the entire population.”

It is through repetition that students learn how to fail successfully, a process that cultivates a “critical habit of mind,” as with each mistake they are afforded the opportunity to ask, “Why was that wrong?” And according to Burger, ideas that don’t work are the raw materials of innovation and it is the act of asking and answering this very question that fosters success.

Burger motivates his students to practice failing by grading them on their “quality of failure.” Five percent of students’ total grade is based on how well they fail, and students are tasked with honestly assessing their own performance at the end of each term. Burger maintains this strategy produces students who are “more engaged, more prepared, and more thoughtful in class discussions and in life.”

Read Edward Burger’s full article at Inside Higher Ed.

By Kara Gruber, Preparing Future Faculty coordinator

Resources for Teaching Assistants and Aspiring Professors

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