How many times can you afford to fail?

Blogging? As a class requirement?

Ugh…one more writing task for a doctoral student muddling through the process of writing the dissertation chapters! As excited as I am about my research, I find the day to day struggle of articulating my research findings and improvising the writings of my papers in a scholarly fashion (currently working on the thirty-seventh draft) to be exhausting. Relative to that, blogging sounds exciting. All I have to do is express my thoughts!  It cannot be that hard ! I can stop being an Economist for a while–  such a relief!

Since setting up the blog last Friday night (while bailing on my fellow graduate students and the first happy hour of the semester), all I have been doing is “blogging”…in my mind!

…sitting by the pond and talking with the ducks as my imaginary students,

…going over my twitter feed and having an outburst on Sara’s reply,

…having a serious conversation with a fellow coworker about our passion for teaching on Saturday afternoon over sushi,

I had been bubbling with excitement…thinking of WHAT I would write, HOW would I write it, WHY I would bring up my passion (and predicament, too!)  about learning and teaching, relevant REFERENCES I might incorporate in my blog post etc…when suddenly out of the foggy memories from the past, a quote by Thomas Carlyle from the Series of Great Ideas of Western Man emerged :

“… let each become all that he was created capable of being: expand, if possible, to his full growth; and show himself at length in his own shape and stature, be these what they may.”

I have found this quote profound and extremely relatable to the concept  of “Rethinking Learning” according to Dr. Michael Wesch’s TEDx talk. Cultivating unique learning opportunities with an understanding and acknowledgment of the unique potential can bring enormous value and enhance the educational experiences of the learners. While we consider learning outcome to be a function of the number of students in a classroom setting, meaningful interaction between the educators and students, time spent in learning etc. , we would all agree that the process of learning is highly heterogeneous and that the associated learning curve varies from learner to learner.

As I, an economist studying decision-making, have been trying to write, one question has continually bothered me is:  How many failed attempts could a learner afford? From the perspective of a learner, when we enter a classroom or a learning space, we not only bring in our passion, excitement and ambition, but also the tremendous burden of payment for school and getting a job after graduation. As Graduate students, we face inordinate challenges and pressure throughout the process of learning and thriving as professionals. The learning brain is often constrained by such challenges and creates reverse tolerance of failures. As much as I enjoyed baby George making his final leap after falling off numerous times each failure throughout the graduate school experience, often comes with an overwhelming cost of staying additional time in school and an associated loss of earnings both of which add to the existing burden that we carry with us until we reach the peak of our full potential, as a part of the educational experience.

Can we overlook these factors at play? At the end of the day, aren’t we all trying to make the best out of the situation given our constraints? Isn’t it about how many times and to what extent of failure we are able to afford?




11 Replies to “How many times can you afford to fail?”

  1. I think you make an excellent point, and that it hinges on your definition of what a “failure” is. Is it getting an F in a class (or a B, for some students)? Or a single test? Or (dare I speak the words) not passing prelim exams? I think Dr. Wesch’s talk made the argument that course set up students so that lack of initial success (like failing an exam) does not mean that a student automatically fails the course. Certainly, students at any level of higher education can only afford to fail so many classes. At a certain threshold, even financial aid is withheld. Even courses where there is some flexibility in grading, such as dropping the lowest quiz score, enough low scores will hurt a students GPA. Setting up courses so that they are more focused on improving from where a student started, rather than grading off the same standard for every student may help students “fail” less.
    The thing that I love about Grad School is that I fail all the time. My ideas don’t work, my experiments don’t turn out the way I expect them too, I mess up lab work and have to redo it, my grants get rejected, my papers aren’t accepted for publication, but I learn from it, and I improve. I can make mistakes and have failures all the time, but as long as they are handled properly, they help me learn better than if I coasted through everything. I think this aspect of grad school has helped me prepare for a job better than any course, because I’m building thick skin (thank you Reviewer 2) and I’m learning how to be more flexible and solve problems, rather than just accepting that I did poorly, and that’s the grade I’m stuck with.

    1. Hi Sarah, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I find your experience so relatable to my graduate school experience, specially since I started working on my research after completing the course requirements. I think it has been possible because there is not really any way to get an F or an A in research; I stopped being less conscious about it! I agree that even though the experience causes a lot of stress over the course of time, research is more like following a “trial-error-further improvement” approach, keep at it and eventually developing a “thick-skin” like you did! Thanks,

  2. When you are young, you have the luxury to take many fails. When you
    grow old, have a family, kids, and etc, then each fail would be a
    burden. So take as many fails as you can while you still have the

    1. Hi Yinlin, Thanks for your insights! It is exactly like a mathematical optimization problem where we are trying to maximize our well-being with respect to the number and extent of failure given the constraints that we have (such as paying for schools, utilities/ bills, having a family to provide for, having kids to raise, aging, savings and so on).

  3. Excellent point in describing the relatively high cost of making “failed attempts” in academic life. Theoretically, we learn from making mistakes, so our educational system should be allowing, or at least tolerant of some of it. A research direction that leads to no discoveries, a semester of straying into courses that don’t particularly enhance career options, etc.
    As you correctly mention in your post, financial and professional restraints don’t leave much room for all of this.
    At the micro-level however, there is the opportunity that when we assume the role of educator we can honor the fundamentals of baby Georges’ education : giving learners the autonomy to direct (some) of their education, valuing experience along with end-results and never letting education run out of its fun.

    1. Thank you for your comments Arash! I agree with you that as an educator, it is our responsibility to ensure an welcoming and safe environment for our students as well as help them to grow and learn from their mistakes/ failures. When I become a professor (someday!), that is the strategy I am going to utilize for my students (micro-level) even if I cannot necessarily do the same for everyone else outside my class (at a macro-level). Having said that, I am hopeful that the micro-level contribution of dedicated #gedivt peers can definitely lead a pathway towards macro-level improvement.

      On this note, I would like to mention one of my very favorite quote by Margaret Mead : “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. “

  4. Farha,
    Interesting post about some of the ancillary factors that play into students’ willingness to engage in unique approaches. I remember first seeing the video that Michael Wesch made with his class on youtube a couple of years ago. It really upset me, not because of the information it stated, but because it seemed to imply that students want to transcend the limits of traditional educational approaches. In virtually all of my experiences as both a student and a teacher I have found that students cling to the traditional approach much more than educators. Any time a teacher/professor would try something unconventional, students would become uneasy and start trying to find the ‘answers’ or the path to a sure-fire ‘A.’ When you start to think about the immense pressures surrounding education, which you mention in your post, it is easy to understand why students are so obsessed with finding the ‘answers.’ I guess it is up to us as innovative educators to help students understand that in the long run a more thought and problem-centered approach will make them better students and ultimately more successful individuals as well.

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment, Heath! It is more like following a “risk minimizing” approach for the students, with an understanding of the likelihood and the consequences of uncertainties in academic lives. I completely agree with you on the idea that it is on us to start bringing up changes and work towards improving the situation. Thanks

  5. Hi Farha,
    That was thoughtful of you. The highlights used about the limits at which a student can fail are so crucial this very day. However, its left for we the educators to be innovative in our academic world and also bring up strategies that dive into the real world. This strategy will help the student to understand the benefit of failing, learn from it and become better.
    Thank you for the post!

    1. Hey Helen , thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with what you have said. As graduate students, we have experience of being on both sides, as learners and as educators, the responsibility of finding an (multiple if needed) optimal and innovative pedagogical approach lies on us. Thanks.

  6. Hi Farha, I appreciate your question how many times can a student fail, and similarly to students being heterogeneous, programs can also be highly idiosyncratic with their views on failure and what qualifies as successfully crossing a hurdle. Some programs have a higher appreciation of failure and some seemed more designed for students to fail. Do you feel like the other students are in similar positions? Do you feel like your colleagues in other departments/programs are fairing differently? I feel that my experiences in Engineering were more similar to yours, but that in my Public Health program and in Planning things are different. Failure is also very much a part of the work world, and learning how to fail and recover is a skill, so in some ways the programs that don’t encourage and support students through failure are almost certainly setting some students up for this outcome when they leave the walls of our campus. I look forward to seeing how your questions evolve over the course of the semester.

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