Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why You Want Your A&P Students to Fail

I want my students to fail. Of course I don't want them to fail the course, but I do want to give them a lot of opportunities to get things wrong as they learn new facts, apply new knowledge, and build their conceptual frameworks.

Learning scientists have plenty of research that shows that failing to get things right at first, then correcting one's thinking by relearning forgotten facts and applying knowledge in better ways, strengthens mastery. And it reinforces long-term memory of facts—and long-term memory of how to solve problems.

So I give my A&P students a lot of opportunities to fail. So that they can stop failing and be more consistent in succeeding.

One way I do that is by using clickers—a student response system—during lectures, labs, and discussion. I do assign "participation points" for answering questions using this system in class, but I do not assign points based on whether the answers were correct or incorrect. I want them take risks—to fail sometimes.

By failing to get something right on a "clicker question," they wake up to where their deficiencies in learning are. Then we work together to correct their knowledge. It's more likely that when they encounter a similar challenge later on in my course, they'll be in a better position to succeed.

I also give my students a lot of opportunity to fail in taking online tests. In my courses, I give a lot of online tests that act primarily as formative assessments. That is tests that help them gain knowledge at the beginning of their learning and tell them how they are doing—not tests that primarily evaluate if they've succeeded at the end of their learning process (summative testing). Most of my summative testing is instead done in written exams.

My frequent online tests do have grade points associated with them, but because multiple attempts are allowed, they have a built-in formative component. Because the questions are randomly drawn from question sets containing many items, each test attempt has different items—but is testing the same set of learning objectives. Students fail, then fail again, then succeed in such tests.

Because those online tests are cumulative—testing over all prior concepts—they get continuous practice in retrieving and applying concepts. And ongoing opportunities to fail—then succeed. By the time we get to their midterm and final exams, they are ready to succeed.

But wait! There's more.

I also require my student to take pretests before they begin their online testing. The pretests come before any learning activity in a new unit. Thus, they have an initial opportunity to fail—and fail miserably—by taking a test on a new set of topics that they may have never seen before. Learning research—and my own experience—shows that such pretests really prime student learning. Maybe a miserable failure at the start gets our brains into a mode that helps us really figure out how to avoid such failure again!

I realize that it may seem counterintuitive for either teachers or learners to embrace failure as desirable. But considering how we really learn—by falling, then getting up and trying again—it makes a lot of sense. And the science of learning backs up this approach.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • Consider adding opportunities for students to fail early in their learning by using low-stakes or zero-stakes tests and quizzes.

  • Consider using clickers or mobile-based student response systems to embed questions in lectures, labs, group activities, and discussions.

  • Consider embedding quiz items in your pre-class "flipped" course materials.

  • Encourage students to test each other outside of class to give additional opportunities for failure. Flash cards, concept maps, and similar study activities also provide failure opportunities that enhance learning.

Want to know more?

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning
  • James M. Lang, John Wiley & Sons, Feb 16, 2016 
  • Book that summarizes many different ideas about how to apply learning science to your courses, it gives practical advice and a lot of examples of how to do "small" things in your course to promote the kinds of failure that promote learning.

Failure is an Option: Helping Students Learn from Mistakes
  • John Orlando, PhD, Faculty Focus, 
    May 16, 2011
  • Brief column on the value of failure as a teaching tool. And mentions the idea that even the toughest teacher can have a class full of "A students" when we let them fail, then succeed.

What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?
  • Carnegie Mellon University (Eberly Center | Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation), accessed June 15, 2017
  • Brief webpage contrasting formative and summative assessment.

Testing as a Learning Tool | UPDATE
  • Kevin Patton, The A&P Professor blog, May 19, 2015
  • My most recent post that further explains the testing methods mentioned above. With links to additional resources.

Cumulative Testing Enhances Learning
  • Kevin Patton, The A&P Professor blog, September 5, 2016
  • Briefly explains my use of cumulative testing in A&P courses. With links to additional resources.

Student Response Systems: Trying Clickers in Your Course
  • Kevin Patton, The A&P Professor website, accessed June 16, 2017
  • My weminar on using clickers in the A&P course. With links to additional resources.
Top photo: Sigurd Decroos
Middle photo: ilker

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