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It’s easy to think failure is a point of no return, especially within a classroom setting. After all, in North America’s grading system, for instance, the lowest grade a student can receive is an “F,” which denotes failure. A failing grade often means a student cannot move forward in next steps and must retake a course or year of learning.
At the same time, students may, in their later years of education, encounter an application essay prompt like “Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it.” This may seem to fly in the face of the prior educational journey.
If colleges and graduate schools look for students to write essays about what they learned from failure—are we teaching students this lesson within classrooms? As Michael Bycraft puts it, “Embracing failure can seem counterintuitive to students. If we have always taught our kids that every test must be an A+, then how do we support them when it isn’t" (2019)?
It is important to embrace failure. Because there is no learning without setbacks. And creating a safe space for failure helps students to not feel discouraged by failure and instead build resilience and a more robust path towards learning. Moreover, pointing out missteps and providing feedback instead of only praising perfection (or encouraging perfection) can help students further their learning and gain confidence (Metcalfe, 2017).
Failing safely within academic integrity is also important. Low-stakes instruction around attribution and citation helps students understand how to pivot from missteps and transform misconduct like plagiarism into teachable moments. Learning things like research skills in a low-stakes setting “decreases student anxiety and increases student confidence and performance” (Stewart-Mailhiot, 2014, p. 40).
A fear of failure, according to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, is directly linked to self worth. “Covington found that students will put themselves through unbelievable psychological machinations in order to avoid failure and maintain the sense that they are worthy—which, as all of us who have ever dealt with the fear of failure know, can have long-term consequences” (Zakrzewski, 2013).
When a student fears failure so much and they don’t believe they have the ability to succeed, they become vulnerable to shortcut solutions that help them avoid a failing outcome and preserve their self-worth (Zakrzewski, 2013). Additional research supports this psychological arc; students don’t want to see themselves as immoral and will rationalize their cheating as legitimate behavior (Simmons, 2018).
This path may lead to students who resort to forms of misconduct like plagiarism, contract cheating, and more recently inappropriate uses of AI writing, to avoid failure at any cost.
When educators provide a safe space for failing with frequent, low-stakes assignments, then we are able to model resilience for students. Learning scientist Manu Kapur, architect of the theory of productive failure states, “If success doesn't work right off the bat, then maybe we question that very assumption and design for failure…The goal is to design experiences that incorporate failure in a safe, curated way. Then, we turn that initial failure into something that is productive by stepping in, giving students feedback and guidance, and helping them to make sense of the material by assembling it into a more coherent whole” (Terada, 2022).
Providing a low-stakes environment around which students can gain analytical skills and understand that missteps are a key component of innovation and original ideas is critical (Warnock, 2013). Before a student leaps into a high-stakes assignment, they must understand how to cite, attribute, and how to embrace originality and their own authentic voice. These skills are formed through frequent, low-stakes assessments.
Failing safely is critical to resilience and overcoming setbacks. When setbacks are framed as an opportunity to learn, students see a way out. They are then provided with a narrative that doesn’t link failure to self-worth and instead define it as a part of the learning journey. The result is a more confident student less prone to academic misconduct.
In fact, academic misconduct can be transformative. A restorative framework for academic misconduct is one such pathway for transformation and to help students build back from a point of failure.
Students may feel safer examining failure in a neutral third party. An emotionally low-stakes setup enables students to then practice with their own work, which by nature is higher stakes.
Teachers are already innovating in classrooms when it comes to AI writing and ChatGPT. On Reddit, one teacher is adapting to the changing landscape. The comment reads, “My friend is in university and taking a history class. The professor is using ChatGPT to write essays on the history topics and the students need to mark up its essays and point out where ChatGPT is wrong and correct it. (u/SunRev, Reddit, 2023).
This is a remarkable lesson plan on several levels. One, the teacher is utilizing AI writing as a teaching tool, acknowledging its existence to students. Second, the teacher is pointing out AI’s shortcomings and limitations through hands-on research and a verification activity. And third, the teacher is embracing failure, even if it is the failure of AI, and empowering students to become the authority figure over AI.
Providing a safe space for failure is a well-researched component of pedagogy. But we also know challenges spring up; AI writing is no exception as we all pivot towards embracing AI writing’s existence while maintaining academic integrity. As we do so, it’s important to keep in mind the importance of failing safely as we navigate this new environment. And to support students in their learning journey in a world of AI writing, ChatGPT, and new innovations to come.