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Are we afraid to let students fail?

A recent blog post, Are We Afraid to Let Students Make Mistakes, Maryellen Weimer discusses the challenge teachers experience when letting students make mistakes. While we know the learning gains made from mistakes, educators may feel “responsible for protecting and controlling student learning experiences.” The research Weimer discusses deals with science-based inquiry, but she believes the same concerns exist in all instructional environments. If learning goes off target, the student may not reach their intended goals or even stop participating in the program.

Additionally, failure can cause setbacks because learning from mistakes is not automatic. In addition to the learning outcomes, teachers struggle with lack of time. It may take several mistakes to ‘get it right’. There is a great deal of content to cover in order to help a student reach their goals, so we closely lead the experience, rather than giving students time to make mistakes and approach the topic from another, experienced lens.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel as though you have time to let your students make mistakes when learning? Do you struggle with the time involved in time? I'd love to hear your thoughts?


Cynthia Zafft's picture
One hundred

Hi Kathy:

I can't quite figure out how to touch down here.  There is something about the interaction of these three ideas that perplexes me.  Lots to unpack, which I will leave to other group members.

The clearest in my thinking is that I don't see mistakes as equaling failure.  Mistakes seem like a normal part of learning and they actually tell me more about what I am thinking or what a student is thinking than getting a right answer.  In fact, even when I taught cut-and-dry science, I almost always had to ask students how they got "right answers" just to better understand their thinking.  As a high school science teacher, I did have the luxury of more time with students and more leeway to shape the curriculum which isn't typically true for adult educators.  However, I'd venture to guess that all those right answers students dutifully produced in my science class did not necessarily equal learning.

What do others think?  How do you balance these big concerns?

Cynthia Zafft


Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

Hi Cynthia, 

I completely agree that mistakes don't equal failure. Mistakes are a natural part of learning. In my experience, the first question a student asks when enrolling in the adult edcuation classroom is, "How long will this take?". Students want to 'hurry' through their adult education process so they can get to their next step - a job, a program of study, ext. Guiding students through inquiry based learning takes time - and not always time that students are willing to devote to school. I am also curious if teachers feel that students want move quickly so teachers are unable to devote the time needed for inquiry. 

Kathy Tracey

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

I invite you all to check out this article from Faculty Focus. It starts with "Slow learning—not to be confused with slow learners—is learning that happens gradually, where understanding deepens slowly and skills advance but without immediate noticeable change. Some learning occurs all at once; suddenly, there’s a performance breakthrough. Typically, fast learning feels easy, even if it was proceeded by a frustrating period of confusion. What is finally understood is so clear, so obvious—what is finally mastered no longer seems hard." 

The article closes with several great questions for consideration and I invite you to share your thoughts. 

  • What are the signs of progress when students are learning to think critically?
  • Should we point out these steps to students?  How do you think that will aid in overall retention?


Kathy Tracey