Overcoming Failure

Soil failure north of Campbell River on Kelsey Bay Highway.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. I’ve implemented Specifications Grading in Intro to Hispanic Literary Texts, Spanish Conversation, and Composition in Spanish courses over the past two semesters, with mostly positive results.

The basic idea is that assignments have very clear requirements, are graded pass/fail, and that failure is mitigated through tokens students can trade in to excuse or make up a failed assignment. Students seem to either love it or hate it with no middle ground, but either way I have seen much higher quality of work and engagement.

My own failure in implementing this system has been in addressing student failure in a positive way. Even though students have the chance to make up work, and I encourage them by reminding them that failure is a part of learning, they still show signs of deep frustration at the word “failure.”

Next semester I’ll take Eric Burger’s advice and teach failure by building failure assessment into the class. An assignment like Burger’s terrible first draft or this one–a required reflection on a particular failure, how it was mitigated–might normalize the idea of failure and empower students to see the learning value in failing.

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