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The power of failure: fostering resilience and creativity in academia, a case study with research students

Avoiding what’s good for you: failure as the broccoli of academia

Failure is often seen as taboo in academia, with students striving to avoid it at all costs. However, failure can be a valuable and instructive experience that teaches students resilience, creativity and adaptability. Rewarding failure is essential for encouraging innovation. In academia, where the focus is on producing new knowledge and pushing the boundaries of human understanding, failure is an inevitable and necessary part of the research process. Many of the most significant breakthroughs in science, technology and the arts have come as a result of failures that were used as stepping stones towards success. 

The challenge for educators, however, is to find ways to reward failure without undermining academic standards or discouraging students from striving for excellence. Knowing that failure is an unavoidable and indeed necessary part of successful research, I wanted to create an environment within research coursework where failure was not stigmatised, but rather embraced as a valuable learning opportunity. 

Rewarding failure in academia: a simple assessment-based approach

As convener, I introduced an assessment requiring students to develop a research plan designed to map and track all progress towards completion of their thesis. Each fortnight, I asked students to reflect on what they had achieved in the previous fortnight, and to plan their next two weeks. At each reflection, I asked students to identify any or all hurdles, find solutions, and readjust expectations and timelines accordingly. The kicker here is that students were marked not on how well they were ‘sticking to their plan’, but by how well a student was able to identify and manage for failure. 

Taking this approach to assessment, and communicating expectations clearly with students, shifted the focus from grades and perfection to the process of learning and discovery. Students were no longer being judged solely on their ability to produce a perfect research proposal or a flawless thesis but on their willingness to take risks, learn from their mistakes, and persist in the face of setbacks. I noticed that this seemingly simple assessment piece started to foster a culture of collaboration and support.

Students were encouraged to share their challenges and solutions with their peers and supervisors, and were required to share it with me, as the convener of the course, meaning they benefited from collective wisdom, diverse perspectives and constructive feedback. Doing so in fortnightly increments meant the support was ongoing, and students were able to fail early and fail often (a key component of working successfully through failure). Further, as students were tackling smaller portions of their research thesis, they not only felt hurdles were easier to overcome but also were less inclined to wait until the final hour to seek help. This approach led students in the Honours and Masters coursework to build a real sense of community; they catch up outside of class, and often take time to support each other. There is mutual respect between all, and, subsequently, that can really help to sustain students through the ups and downs of their academic journey. Further, since introducing this assessment piece, and teaching students to embrace failure, we have seen a significant decrease in the number of research students seeking extensions. 

Challenges and precautions for educators in rewarding failure

However, this approach is not without its challenges. For other educators wanting to employ a similar embrace of failure, I suggest they be mindful about assessment and feedback processes, and communicate clearly the criteria for evaluation and the expectations for academic integrity to students. I suggest this approach to avoid the potential temptation for students to exaggerate their hurdles or fabricate their solutions in order to win rewards or avoid penalties. 

Embracing failure as a path to learning and success

By teaching students how to deal with failure and how to fail well, educators are not only preparing them for the challenges of the future but also creating a culture of learning, discovery and resilience. This is a valuable lesson that goes beyond the classroom and into the world, where failure and success are both inevitable and essential components of growth and progress. As my approach demonstrates, simple changes to assessment and feedback processes can make a significant difference in fostering a culture of collaboration and support, where failure is embraced as an opportunity for growth and learning.

Ultimately, the ability to fail well is an essential skill for success in academia and beyond. Fear of failure should not hinder the learning and growth of students. Instead, by embracing failure as a natural and necessary part of the learning process, and rewarding students for their resilience and persistence, educators can create an environment in which students are empowered to take risks, push boundaries, and achieve their full potential. The resulting culture of learning and discovery will prepare students not only for the challenges of academia but also for the challenges of the future.

April 2023

Dr Nici Sweaney is a lecturer, Honours and Masters Coursework Convener in the Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU College of Science.