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What does it mean to be 'fault tolerant' and how does it help with retention?


We recently had a very active discussion about the Scarcity mindset and it lead me down the road to discovery about program development and what it means to be 'fault tolerant.' We know our students have difficulty with multiple challenges, but by design, our programs often have little flexiblity. If a student misses too many classes, they are dropped from the program. One of the most powerful lines I read as I researched the Scarcity mindest is the concept of strategies. By their very definition, strategies presume a student has a choice to resolve their challenge. 

For example, last week, I had a student get called in to work. We were in the middle of class. His choice was to not go to work and potentially loose his job OR leave class. Our institution has strict attendance policies and leaving class early or missing class (often due to work conflicts) places this student in jeopardy of being dropped. 

The idea of being 'fault tolerant' is to account for human error and / or to diminish the consequences and results of mistakes. 

So, how to we design programs that address the flexibility that students often need while still achieving the outcomes required by our institutions? Is there a difference between fault tolerance and enabling students? And is it really a lack of 'soft skills' like time management or a lack of resources? 

I'm looking forward to your insight and ideas. 


Kathy Tracey


S Jones's picture
One hundred    Uri Treisman talks about "fault tolerance" in this video.    One of our math teachers has a policy where Friday is "lab day," and if everything's done, you can skip; everybody else uses the hour to catch up.   Another teacher won't accept late homework but you can come down to the tutoring lab (me) and work w/ me on that homework or something else  and replace 5 zeros w/ 100%...  meaning there's face to face talking baout the math time so I can give more help or just encouragement, see what the issue is, etc.  

      We consciously try to make the redundancies trigger more support,  as opposed to "if you miss class, you need to do a b c on your own."   

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred


I love the idea of having a 'catch-up day' built into the overall design of the program. As we work with students who face multiple challenges to success, developing effective strategies to hold students accountable but providing room for set-backs is essential to student retention. In Catherine Savini's Article, "Are You Being Rigorous or Just Intolerant", she highlights 5 steps from the ladder of inference. These inferences establish our beliefs about our students and the world around us.  

(1) observing a person’s behavior;
(2) selecting data from what we observe;
(3) interpreting that data through the lens of previous experience;
(4) making assumptions; and
(5) drawing conclusions about that person.

While the article focuses on student mental health, the premise of 'fault tolerance' is here. How are we taking steps to create equitable environments and what does that mean for our program accountability. 

I'm looking forward to your thoughts. 


Kathy Tracey




Jennifer Herr's picture

Our program tends to be to lenient on students when it comes to attendance and being on time.  We do this often because if we didn't we wouldn't have any students left!  The lesson that this teachings the student most likely leaks into the workplace, in turn ended up with the student being fired.

In adult education we are so focused on the data!  We need to get every student a TABE gain and we need this many students to get an HSE.  All the while teaching students bad attendance skills to get there!  How do we change this?

Stacey King's picture

I think you bring up a good point about being leniency in attendance leading to poor job skills.  I think what would be a alternative to the attendance policy is rather than just accepting students as being late, teach them life skills.  Require them to call if they are going to be late just like you would do your employer.  Work with them on planning ahead and letting you know ahead of time if they have appointments.  I know this is easier said than done, but it also goes along with the topic of the scarcity mindset.  A lot of the students that we deal with in adult education come from low income families.  Generation after generation, the skills (or lack thereof) are being passed on.  They are not learning the basic life skills to function in the real world.  Being on time... what's that?  Job... I got paid today so now I don't need to work until I run out of money.  It is a cycle that never ends until they see that it can end.  We can't make people want to learn new skills, just like we can't make them be on time, and I'm not sure that in adult education there is any way to hold them accountable.  I do know that the Department of Child Services spends lots of money providing these same life skills to parents and even when the motivation is their children, it is still not enough for them to just do it.

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hello Jennifer,

In another LINCS discussion taking place this week, about "scarcity mindset",  there may be an answer to your question about how adult basic skills or workforce training  programs can help students to learn good work habits, can have strict attendance and being-on-time-to-class standards, and at the same time have high attendance and program completion.

Here's a link to a post in that discussion from Pennsylvania State University researcher Esther Prins that may offer a key to the solution to your question, "How do we change this?" Before you read it, however, don't think the solution will be quick, easy or inexpensive to achieve. For example, a program, itself in poverty, that does not have the resources to provide their students in poverty with wraparound services may find this difficult or impossible to achieve. So it may raise other questions such as how does a program in poverty, without the ability to provide basic resources for its students who are in poverty -- resources such as free or low-cost transportation, childcare, food benefits, family healthcare, affordable housing access for those who are homeless or rent-starved, affordable Internet access, planning for debt reduction, and other necessary wraparound services -- itself move out of its poverty?

Below are some quotes from students in a focus group that Esther Prins referred to (bolding of text is my addition) that I think get at a key to helping students in poverty be accountable:

Wraparound Supports and Mental B'andwidth
We propose that wraparound supports work because they expand participants’ “mental bandwidth” (Mullainathan & Eldar, 2013; Schilbach, Schofield, & Mullainathan, 2016). Our mental bandwidth is finite, and for people in poverty, thinking about and managing financial problems imposes a massive cognitive load (Schilbach et al., 2016). In field and laboratory studies, the cognitive impact of thinking about financial concerns was the equivalent of losing a night of sleep—even for people without real financial problems (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zhao, 2013). When CP programs help students apply for food stamps, pay for transportation, obtain health insurance or childcare, or reduce debt, they increase students’ bandwidth for focusing on academics.

Our data support this interpretation. For instance, during the focus group with JARC students, a dislocated worker stated that because of the agency’s support services, "we don’t have to stress about all those actual life problems. All we have to do is concentrate on our school work….It takes a big burden and a big load off the mind when you don’t have to worry about that, and you just concentrate on the school work, which is very helpful." In his own words, this student articulated the concept of mental bandwidth: support services reduce the cognitive load of “life problems” and allow students to devote more mental energy to their studies.

Another student had a similar perspective: "They don’t give you no excuse for not being here. You’re going to get here because you get either a bus card or a gas card….I mean, you don’t got no excuse for how you don’t want to be here, because they going to help you with something. I just signed up for [health] insurance the other day. I’ve never had insurance. I didn’t even sign up for insurance. I sat there and gave the guy my information. And then before I knew it, I was [like], oh, wow, now I got insurance!" A third student needed to get her son’s eyes checked and had been “waiting for weeks” for the insurance company to send a list of in-network doctors. She marveled that a JARC employee supplied this information in a matter of minutes.

David J. Rosen