Could encouraging low-stakes failure build up our students and prevent them falling later on?

For most students, studying for a degree is a challenge. The experience for each student will be unique but the challenge of transitioning from the familiar to the unknown is common to all. We expect our students to arrive at university eager to learn and full of enthusiasm for their chosen subject ready to dedicate themselves to their studies and thrive. However, an increasing number arrive capable of little more than surviving the turbulent transition to university life.

As educators we need to stop projecting our personal experiences of studying at university onto today’s students. Instead of asking why our students are less engaged than previous cohorts, reporting that they don’t feel part of their university community or seemingly reluctant to form support groups with their peers, we need to start responding. We need to recognise the effect of their disrupted education during the ongoing pandemic and acknowledge that the future will be volatile too. We need to empathise and ask how we can help develop the skills and capabilities our students need to enable them to successfully transition to university life and to face future challenges. Skills such as coping with complex challenges and future uncertainty that they will need as they transition from learning to becoming. We often focus on protecting our students from failure when a better preparation for the uncertainties of life is to support them as they experience failure. By helping them to gain resilience, increase confidence and manage their fear of failure we start to remove barriers to learning and equip our students with the skills needed to thrive in their studies and beyond.

Tips For Building Student Resilience

  • Create opportunities for students to experience low-stakes failure, e.g. campus-wide scavenger hunts during freshers week or non-assessed practicals/presentations. Post-task reflection activities can make these activities even more effective for building student resilience and encouraging a growth mindset.
  • Engage students in activities which have only limited instructions requiring the students to make decisions about how to accomplish the task, e.g. classic team-building tasks of building a specified object (the tallest tower, widest bridge etc.) using an array of given items or a methodology to follow which lacks timings or quantities. Such opportunities encourage decision-making, groupwork skills and autonomy and if elements that require negotiation and discussion are incorporated, can be effective for building self-efficacy and confidence.
  • Avoid repeating similar tasks, forms of assessment or activities and instead vary the “what” and “how” elements of what the students are asked to do. This encourages development of a variety of skills and experience of dealing with ‘the unknown’.
  • Make use of low-stakes discussion prompts that ask students what they think rather than what they know e.g.
    “How would a successful student prepare for this?”
    “What do you notice about…?” or
    “What tips do you have to help other students in the year ahead?”
    Holding these discussions informal setting where all voices are heard can build self-confidence and a feeling of community amongst the student cohort.

Kelly Edmunds, University of East Anglia
k.edmunds@uea.ac.uk, @kellyedmunds