Failing Forward, Supporting Students

My son starts middle school in a week, so I’ve been more susceptible than usual to headlines about how parents can help their kids succeed academically. A couple of recent articles in the New York Times caught my eye. First was an opinion piece by psychologist Madeline Levine called Raising Successful Children. Levine is the author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, and she encourages parents stand back and let children make mistakes (within reasonable safety parameters, of course), rather than jump in to fix problems that kids should learn how to solve themselves. More recently I read a review of a new book called How Children Succeed by journalist Paul Tough. He echoes many of Levine’s points about giving kids the space to try, fail, and try again, but cautions that unless children are supported in their efforts it will be difficult for them to pick themselves up and keep going. The reviewer refers to this as a “character-building combination of support and autonomy.”

It’s easy to consider strategies to use to encourage students to try, fail, and try again in a college course, as there’s time over the semester for students to work on problems and concepts that may initially elude them. I’m interested in games-based learning and this is a familiar theme in all good games; noted education scholar James Paul Gee calls it “failing forward.” In a videogame, for example, I usually don’t finish the boss level in my first try, but I learn its attributes and weaknesses so that I can apply what I’ve learned in my next attempt (and repeat until victorious).

In academic libraries we don’t usually have the semester-length relationship with students that classroom faculty have. How can academic librarians allow — or even encourage — students to fail, but be there to support and encourage them when they do?

  • As an instruction librarian, one obvious strategy that leaps to mind is giving students the space to practice their research and library skills during our instruction sessions and workshops. I still struggle with my tendency to want to tell students every single thing about the library, but I’m getting better about keeping my presentation short and preserving time for students to search on their own as I make myself available to answer their questions (and watch closely so I can offer help to students who don’t explicitly ask). And if I happen to fail when demonstrating a search to students, so much the better.
  • At the Reference Desk, we can allow students to “drive” their search for information by turning the computer keyboard over to them so they can type their search query. We can support them as they sort through their results, and offer suggestions of strategies for revising their search to produce better results. This might be tricky at busy times, of course, so we might not always be able to use this approach with students. We can also think of roving Reference as an opportunity to help students fail forward: librarians can roam the study areas in search of students who look like they may have a question or be in need of assistance.
  • On our websites, we can embed instructional text, tutorials, and ask a librarian links within our electronic resources and services, or on the web pages that link to them. Ideally students will try to use these research tools themselves, but, if they run into trouble or don’t find what they need, they can easily find support or can reach out and ask for our help. One caveat is that it may be difficult to determine whether students are taking advantage of the support offered rather than just failing and moving on, though usability studies and web analytics could be employed to gather information about usage.

I’m sure there are lots of other ways that academic librarians can help students try, fail, and try again — I’d be interested to hear about them. And what about students who won’t or can’t seek encouragement, how can we support them when they try and fail?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

2 thoughts on “Failing Forward, Supporting Students”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your statement about setting aside a little time during worksops for students to practice. Like you, I have a hard time carving out the time to do this, but when I have done it in the past, it’s been effective. The fact that they walk out of the workshop (hopefully) with something they can use for their project is a nice plus as well.

  2. You’ve touched on a good point. As parents, we allow our children to fail in a while the stakes for failure are low. I never thought of carrying that over to teaching. Thanks for the tip.
    As for Reference assistance, we’ve put two computer screens back to back and hooked a mouse for each side. That way we can mentor the student through their problem(s) but they do the all the keyboarding themselves. We use our mouse to point out areas they should use, suggestions to make their searching more productive, etc. By the time they get to us, they’ve usually, but not alway, experienced failure – and frustration.

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