Business · Instructional Design

When Failure Teaches Nothing

edited epic fail

My husband is currently back in school as a degree-seeking student and I am watching as he deals with frustrations that come with it.

I have watched as he tries to navigate poorly designed distance learning. I have watched as he tries to figure out assignments. I have watched as he re-learns how to be a student. It’s fascinating, especially as a learning and development professional.

Sometimes I sit back and giggle and sometimes I share in his frustration. Sometimes I even find myself more frustrated than he is because I know a thing or two about adult education and these professors either pretend not to or just don’t care.

One of the key principles in adult learning theory is experiential learning – and that includes experiencing failure and learning from it. Failure should teach you something. Failure is valuable.

Recently he submitted an assignment, and when he checked back to see his grade he saw that it was a zero. A failed assignment. Being an adult learner, my husband looked for feedback as to why he failed the assignment.

Upon further inspection, it seems that the professor did not even glance at his assignment because it was submitted in the wrong format – it was a PDF instead of a doc or docx.

I understand the principle behind having submission criteria. I get that there is a degree of “following directions” as part of a passing grade. But a complete failure for a perfectly completed assignment because it was in the wrong file format? What is to be learned from that in a speech class?

I have marinated on this incident for several days now as a learning and development professional, trying to understand why the professor took this approach, and I cannot support it. That professor failed my husband (and I’m sure many others) in more ways than one.

I know it may seem like I’m biased, but I more passionate about solid learning design than the fact that my husband failed an assignment.

Sure, it’s one pesky assignment and it was an honest mistake/oversight…but the principle of it bugs me so here are my thoughts about it as a curriculum designer:

  • The submission criteria were buried in a syllabus that was about 12 pages long in size 8 font. I wish I were kidding about this part. I think the professor is lucky he has any students after seeing the syllabus.
  • While I understand the reasoning behind the specific submission criteria in the million-mile syllabus, it should not be the end-all be-all for the assignment. Partial credit should be the way to go if the process is not followed correctly. You still owe it to your learners to give them feedback on the assignment and do your due diligence to teach them something other than following directions at this stage in learning.
  • Adults learn from experiences and, because they are capable of metacognition, they can learn from failure. What is to be learned from this failure? How will this help these students pass their final exam? Simply put, it will not because there was no feedback on the assignment itself.
  • This professor put a policy/procedure in place without considering its unintended consequences. Yes, the professor failed the students but not in the way he intended.
  • Personally, I think the stringent criteria are a cop-out for a lazy professor who doesn’t like grading all of the assignments he requires of his students. I’m just saying.
  • I also think the stringent criteria are a result of a need for learning professionals when the assignments and their grading criteria are created.

While it is clear that higher education is in need of some serious reform, there is much that the business world can learn from its mistakes. Of course, I mean corporate training (because that’s my bag) but I am certain that there are other areas in business that can find inspiration from the shortcomings of the current state of higher ed.

As a learning and development professional, I am reminded that objective grading criteria are necessary. I am reminded that adult learners have different needs and different drivers. I am reminded that learning is not about the teacher…it is about the student. Remember to help them succeed. In reality it is the professor who failed. To quote one of my favorite bosses: “Be the guide along side rather than the sage on stage.”

How might this example apply to other areas of business? What processes do you have in place that produce unintended results or consequences for employees? How can we analyze processes and improve them so they have the desired outcomes without any unintended results?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image by Nicolas Raymond:


One thought on “When Failure Teaches Nothing

  1. Stringent measures are to be used where needed. This was definitely not one. Did your husband send a feedback to the concerned Professor/University on the same?

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