Teaching Excellence Award-Winners Conversation: “How do you learn from failure?”: Breakout Session and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Dave Mazella)

Panelists

Doug Eikenburg, Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences;

Stuart Long, Electrical and Computer Engineering;

Susan Collins, Political Science and Honors College

David Mazella, Moderator (substituting for Frank Holt, History)

***

After an initial discussion of the value of failure in the classroom, as a spur to reflection and rethinking of one’s presentation of the material, the panelists made the following points:

  • Using an example of a student who “didn’t get it” until it was explained four times, Eikenburg stressed the need for young instructors to learn how to describe and explain difficult concepts multiple ways.  Students have a right to express frustration when a faculty member cannot explain things intelligibly to them, and faculty need to make that effort, especially when dealing with critical, and sometimes consequential, matters, such as pharmacologic reactions.
  • After reminding us of Apple’s numerous commercial and engineering failures, Long emphasized the need for keeping failures in perspective, and to remember that they represent part of the process of learning and innovating.
  • Collins talked about the value of a very visible and public failure that occurred while she was learning how to lecture, and how that mortifying experience taught her never to make certain assumptions about her presentations.  She used this to discuss these kinds of experiences as invaluable for arriving at one’s own style as a teacher, and the value of collaboration for improving one’s teaching.
  • The group as a whole discussed with the audience the value of team-teaching, and how it might become more prevalent throughout the university.
  • The group also discussed how failure is only the most visible evidence of risk-taking in the classroom, and embracing failure necessarily meant accepting a certain degree of informed risk.  This linkage needs to be understood by both students and administrators, if proposed innovations in teaching are to be tested and eventually accepted more generally.  In this as in other aspects of teaching, the modeling of the instructor is crucial: if we expect students to take risks, practice new things, and learn by doing, then we must expose ourselves at times to this kind of risk of failing.
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