Failing to learn

Failure was a recurring theme at the recent Learning Technologies 2011 conference, mentioned first in Roger Schank’s conference opening keynote.

The learning opportunities afforded by failing are great. Failing makes the experience much more memorable than having a plain sailing experience.

I still remember failing self-assessment questions during an online SCORM course many years ago. Unaccustomed as I was to failing things, it stung and certainly took me down a few rungs and I did actually go back and study the material more thoroughly and learnt more. In the end I was grateful, since the course was not free (and I had paid for it myself) and I got more value out of it.

Being an online course, the failure was both private and safe and after the initial sting (I think I even looked up to see that no-one had seen), I realised that the failure had really woken me up and had even made me more respectful of the level of the course materials. It was a proper online course of learning written by pros, and not some mickey mouse course that anyone could breeze through.

During many years of course productions, we have conducted a fair few formative user tests. During some of these tests, it was obvious that some of the test people thought it uncomfortable to not ace the knowledge test questions or final exam (whichever the case may have been). These were almost always employees at larger corporations.

Back then I had neither the opportunity or the experience to ask more in-depth follow up questions regarding their views on personal, online or job related failure.

I also think that like me, they were glad that no-one (of any consequence) had witnessed the apparent failure. It wasn’t registered in the LMS as an attempt and their manager and colleagues wouldn’t have to know.

Failure shouldn’t be in the form of a trick question, designed solely to trip learners up. If it happens, then it must be as a result of a properly challenging scenario or series of questions. If it must be tracked, let the LMS record the highest score only.

Because while failure in private may be a catalyst for learning, failure in public may just lead to humiliation. And humiliating people doesn’t make the world a better place.

How about you? Do you allow yourself to fail? More importantly, does the culture at work allow you to learn in public?

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About David

David är utbildad lärare och har arbetat med e-lärande och prestandahöjande åtgärder sedan 2000. Idag jobbar David med våra utbildningar och konsultationstjänster. Han gillar att att kavla upp ärmarna och finns ofta framför ett manus eller ett nytt eller gammalt produktionsverktyg.

5 Responses to “Failing to learn”

  1. Nic Laycock February 3, 2011 at 9:47 am #

    Recovery from failure requires one critical skill – that of being able to identify clearly and precisely what caused the failure so that future action can be planned to avoid repeating the experience. However avoiding the failure is not a recipe for future success. What is more important is to use the same skill – that of noticing what happened and its specific consequenece – to analyse success so that it can be repeated at will and in deifferent situations in the future. It is when we can repeat successes at will that we have truly learned.

    • David February 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Nick. I agree with you that “avoiding failure is not a recipe for future success” but avoiding failure is surely an ingredient for future success? You are of course quite right in that personal and situational awareness, “noticing what happened”, is required for the best, repeatable learning to happen. But then again if you’re not conscious of your surroundings your mind is closed to new things.

  2. Jen Phillips February 3, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    That sounds rather like my philosophy on regrets: I don’t have regrets because every silly, embarrassing or just plain stupid thing I’ve done has taught me something. They still sting at the time, but I try to leave that behind and keep the lesson.

    • David February 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      Hi Jen. You sound like an enlightened person :) Do you find you learn new things easily without the extra baggage of regrets?


  1. Learning Technologies 2011 | nLearn - February 3, 2011

    [...] Failure is OK, and in fact is a great opportunity to learn [...]

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