Toward the Failure-Centered Classroom-Part 1
By Melody Kelley, Ph.D. (Assistant Professor, Chemistry, PC)
It ended like any other lab session-with students busy rinsing and replacing glassware, packing their belongings, and waving goodbye. I was filled with a sense of self-assurance, ready to pat myself on the back for another day of quality instruction.
Job well done, Dr. Kelley.
Then it happened. On their way out- one student nervously uttered a statement that I will never forget. It disrupted the repetition and routine of the moment.
“Sorry for asking so many questions.”
To a teacher who prides themselves on creating a community atmosphere in the classroom, the words cut like a knife. In that moment, it occurred to me that while I had successfully cultivated a rapport with my students it did not immediately translate into a comfort with risk and failure.
No, I’m the one who’s sorry
This blog post is the first of three that will explore the “failure-centered classroom.” Each blog will offer one strategy that instructors can use to develop more failure-friendly courses.
Strategy #1- Frequent Formative Assessment
Formative assessments are a type of evaluation that generally serve three functions in the classroom- (1) monitor academic progress, (2) provide real-time feedback to instructors, and (3) drive reform in educational practice and policy.1
Since the outcomes of a formative assessment are often indeterminate, formative assessments, in themselves, are a model for risk-taking. Additionally, frequent low-stakes assessments support student metacognition- allowing for the internal reflection necessary for students to challenge their belief systems around failure.1,2 A recent study in STEM inquiry-based classrooms found that formative assessments encouraged a greater sense of “student agency” and supported inquiry learning.3
Formative assessments also align with inclusive teaching. In “How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: An Advice Guide,” Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan advise faculty to “give lots of low-stakes quizzes and assessments” to promote inclusion in the classroom.2
In lecture courses, I use a formative assessment that is informed by Sathy and Hogan’s advice guide to foster a more failure-centered classroom. It is a low-tech, anonymous, pre/post lecture activity designed to quickly assess teaching and learning. Two student submission examples are shown below from a Survey of Chemistry II lecture. Note the willingness of students to risk providing incorrect answers and express their incomprehension of the topic.
There are a variety of rationales for supporting formative assessment in classrooms. Among those are that formative assessments offer students and faculty an opportunity to confront (and ultimately befriend) failure.
Example activity Hydrocarbons
- Bell, B.; Cowie, B. The characteristics of formative assessment in science education. Science Education 2001, 85 (5), 536-553, https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.1022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.1022 (accessed 2021/11/17).
- Sathy, V.; Hogan, K. A. How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2019; Vol. 2021.
- Grangeat, M.; Harrison, C.; Dolin, J. Exploring assessment in STEM inquiry learning classrooms. International Journal of Science Education 2021, 43 (3), 345-361. DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2021.1903617.