Academic failure is necessary – why penalise it? Matt Bridge

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A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast from the BBC which amongst others featured the university’s Prof Alice Roberts. The topic being discussed was ‘Science’s Epic Fails’ and covered experiments that went wrong and publication bias of positive results amongst other things. The broad discussion around science being a series of failures from which we learn and progress got me thinking about failed modules and assessments on our degree programmes. If science itself can be seen as body of work that includes failures from which we learn, then why do we penalise failure in a module by capping the value of that module in a final degree classification if a student passes after reassessment? Is the learning that takes place from failure, reflection and going again any less valuable than that for a student who manages to achieve a ‘level’ the first time around? Might it actually give that students an additional set of skills? Do we just penalise it as this is what we do? – I’d hope that this can be different in the future.

3 thoughts on “Academic failure is necessary – why penalise it? Matt Bridge”

  1. Matt makes an interesting point. Science advances through failure. In a research-intensive university, students need to understand from the beginning that we often fail as we progress our research – and we learn from it. Perhaps in lecture 1 in a module we should share with them the worst journal paper or grant review we ever received. Then explore with them what we learnt from it – making sure we don’t only share the ‘happy ever after stories’. After all, some papers never make it through and many grants are never funded. That’s life.

  2. The original posting considered how we learn from our experience of failure and asked if we might adapt that understanding to how we assess students in the future. We must surely agree that learning gain – however it might be precisely defined – must have within that description a sense of self-improvement that comes from an awareness of one’s own limitations. There can be no more acute a measure of that than the receiving of a summative grade following an assignment or end of year exam. Should the feedback provided with that grade be of any value, then the new knowledge gained must be of use in in its application, which may be – but not necessarily – tested in future assessments. In having to do a supplementary exam, a student – deemed to have ‘failed’ at first sit, is thus provided with the ‘opportunity’ to improve their mark with a resit that has a mark capped at the pass mark – irrespective of performance at this test. Whilst many might see the merit in this approach in limiting a piecemeal attitude to assessment, might it not be better to allow all students a resit, irrespective of their first mark, with their highest mark in the two exams taken forward as part of their degree classification? In this way, all have the chance to show how they have learned from their first attempt. This would enable a more personal development opportunity for each student as, to paraphrase Tolstoy (!) “All happy learners are alike; each unhappy learner is unhappy in their own way.”

    I appreciate that this could be considered simply as essentially a formative exam followed by a summative exam – but the key difference is that, in this methodology, as both exams provide the opportunity for a summative grade, there will have to be a different approach taken both by teachers and students that will have, at its heart, a genuine focus on learning from being taught and learning from personal experience. Finally, if we are thinking more creatively, might TEL enable the process of assessment to become effectively continuous throughout a student’s course with the ability for each to personalise what would become essentially a feedback schedule based upon their own particular needs?

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