A service of the Department of English at the U of A
Lauren Shively, Olivia Jorgensen, and Martha Pearce
Many of us have grown up hearing the proverbial advice “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” While this encourages persistence and resilience and may be accepted as good counsel, it conveniently elides the word for the experience it describes: failure. To be unsuccessful is to fail. It is also deeply a human experience and one that is essential to the learning process. Writing in particular requires students to be given “the opportunity to try, to fail, and to learn from those failures as a means of intellectual growth” (63) according to Collin Brooke and Allison Carr in Naming What You Know. Failure is essential to the writing process because it teaches students to take risks and learn from their mistakes.
It is first important to establish what we mean by failure. Brooke and Carr discuss how students often tend to view writing as the artifact rather than the process (63). This can lead them to become overly attached to a piece of writing and to view need for revision as personal failing rather than necessary for all writing. By teaching “failure as something all writers work through, rather than as a symptom of inadequacy or stupidity,” (Brooke and Carr 63) we can nip this in the bud and help students start thinking about what Asao Inoue calls “productive failure” (337). A Northeastern University wiki called “Making Meaning Out of Failure” cites a 1998 study by Mueller and Dweck to note that learners praised for effort rather than perceived intelligence “were more likely to persist and enjoy their work after experiencing failure.” By affirming a student’s effort, we encourage them to continue putting in the same effort in the future. But Inoue addresses the issue with judging success and failure based on effort. In his article “Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments,” he identifies two distinct types of failure assessed in writing classrooms: quality-failure and labor-failure. The former is based on failing grades in courses, while the latter is “associated with not achieving or demonstrating a defined degree of effort” (339), such as a required page length. By redefining quality as something beyond comparison to Standard American English, failure can be redefined more productively and inclusively as well. The understanding of failure at both the course level and assignment level needs to be reevaluated to help students succeed and not fixate on their grades.
As Brook and Carr point out in Naming What We Know, students often fear failure in their writing since they think it will affect their grades negatively (63). As can be observed in the Hilppö and Reed’s paper “‘Failure is just another try’: Re-framing failure in school through the FUSE studio approach,” incorporating failure as a part of the learning process can be beneficial for both the students and the teacher. Hilppö and Reed discuss an example of multiple students working in an environment where failure is not only an option, it is expected. One such example involved 3 students who were helping each other complete a task set for them by the FUSE program (4). These students were all tasked with creating a sticker using a vinyl cutting machine. Each of them used their knowledge from that and previous projects to help each other when something in the task failed. This benefitted the teacher as well because the students were able to solve the problem on their own. They followed up with her afterwards but being in an environment that taught them to expect things to fail and that allowed them to think and solve problems for themselves. This same strategy can apply to teaching writing or any other subject. Allowing students room to fail in certain areas helps them learn to think and solve problems on their own, before it can ever begin to affect their grades.
Brook and Carr frame this idea of failure in the writing process as “an opportunity for growth” (63). Instead of fearing failure, it’s important as educators that we normalize failure in order for our students to feel comfortable with taking risks with their writing—both within and outside of the classroom. Likewise, Amanda French describes failure in the writing process as necessary in her article, “‘Fail Better’: Reconsidering the Role of Struggle and Failure in Academic Writing Development in Higher Education: Journal of the Association for Programmed Learning” (2). “Fail Better” is a pedagogical approach that observes how first-year students in higher education struggle and fail with their writing, but notes how failure is an “inevitable but necessary part of the writing process” (French 2). French argues that in order to support those students, we must make room for failure in the university classroom. A strategy that French suggests is something she calls “personal mining” where students are encouraged to ask their lecturers/instructors about their own struggles and anxieties around writing (6). As a result, this opens a positive discourse on failure and what the writer can learn from it. Overall, the most important part is that the instructor clarifies that it is okay and even expected that all writers fail, but this gives the writer the chance to learn and improve next time.
Failure is an extremely important part of the learning process in any field. Students need to understand that there is not only room for failure, but that it is a normal part of writing. We must remember—and teach—that writing is not natural, it is not something that you get right the first time around, and give students the space to learn from their failure.
Brooke, Collin, and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62–64.
French, Amanda. “‘Fail Better’: Reconsidering the Role of Struggle and Failure in Academic Writing Development in Higher Education: Journal of the Association for Programmed Learning.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. 55, no. 4, 2018, pp. 408–416. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/2084638906?accountid=8361, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2016.1251848.
Hilppö, Jaakko, and Reed Stevens. “‘Failure is just another Try”: Re-Framing Failure in School through the FUSE Studio Approach.” International Journal of Educational Research, vol. 99, 2020, pp. 101494.
Inoue, Asao B. “Theorizing Failure in US Writing Assessments.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 48, no. 3, National Council of Teachers of English, 2014, pp. 330–52.
“Making Meaning Out of Failure.” Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research, Northeastern University, 21 Dec. 2018, https://learning.northeastern.edu/making-meaning-out-of-failure/.