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  • Kelly Edmunds and Helen Leggett

Creating spaces for students to experience low-stakes failure

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Kelly Edmunds @kellyedmunds and Helen Leggett

University of East Anglia

Over a third of students within UK universities are aged under 20 years of age and two-thirds are under the age of 24. They are experiencing one of the most turbulent periods in living memory. It is not surprising to hear that young people in the UK are reporting record-low levels of mental health and that university students report even lower levels of mental wellbeing than the wider population.

For most students, studying for a degree is a challenge. The challenges that each student faces will be unique, but the transition from a familiar homelife into a new life full of unknowns is common to all. We expect our students to arrive at university eager to learn and full of enthusiasm for their chosen subject. We expect students to want to dedicate themselves to their studies and thrive. However in reality, an increasing proportion of students are simply doing their best to survive the turbulent transition to university life, in an uncertain and unsettled world.

As educators, instead of (a) asking why our students are less engaged than previous cohorts, and (b) projecting our personal experiences of studying at university onto today’s young people; perhaps we need to start responding. We need to respond to the effect of their disrupted education during the ongoing pandemic and acknowledge that the future will be volatile too. We need to empathise and ask how we can help our students develop the skills and capabilities to enable them to rise to the challenges that they will face in the future. We need to support our students as they seek to build the resilience that they will need to succeed beyond university. Skills such as coping with complex challenges and future uncertainty that will serve them well as they make the transition from learning to becoming.

University presents opportunities

Life as a university student presents many opportunities to experience and try something new. Such opportunities may include living away from home for the first time, juggling studies with part-time employment, joining a new sports club or society as well as learning opportunities such as going on an overseas field trip, using new specialist equipment, taking a first aid course or learning a new language.

It is not unusual for the first attempt at something new to result in failure but it is through failure that some of the most effective learning takes place. And many of the most effective learning opportunities encourage experiential learning. Within biological sciences there are many opportunities are experiential learning, such as when undertaking new laboratory or experimental techniques, when exploring a new habitat or when learning to analyse data in a new programming language. Many students learn more deeply when engaged in a hands-on, practical experience and this can also be further enhanced with the opportunity to engage in peer discussion or group work.

Facilitating failure through experiential learning

During their first semester at university, we gave students on an Introductory Biology module the opportunity to design their own experiment. They were given an equipment list and an experimental aim and advised on the technique to use but how they set up the equipment, whether they used all of the equipment available and details such as how many repeats of the experiment to run was all up to the students to decide. We didn’t leave them to work this out on their own, they worked in small groups of typically four other students and were supervised in the lab by staff with a staff:student ratio of approximately 1:10 students.

One week after setting up their experiment, the students returned to the lab to collect their results. They entered these on to a shared spreadsheet and were later used in a data analysis workshop (though the students were not aware of this future use at the time). There were no formal consequences if the experiment yielded unexpected data or indeed “went wrong” – which in reality happens often in science as a key part of the learning! There was no assessment associated with the experiments. The experiments gave students an opportunity to experience low-stakes failure or indeed, roaring success!

Student feedback

It seems that those students who did “fail” when conducting the experiment the first time were not put off as when asked to give feedback, many asked if they would have the opportunity to repeat the experiment so that they could learn from their mistakes. The majority of students reported that they had been given a safe space in which to experiment with science and found the process useful. Two months later the students were given the opportunity to repeat the experiment. The second time around we noticed that they were working more effectively with their peers, sharing the tasks with each other and asking questions of each other rather than the staff. In addition to the opportunity to learn from the experiment itself, they had also had the opportunity to learn from each other and strengthen their peer support network which is known to build resilience, increase motivation and confidence in their abilities. Building these skills is one small step on a long journey to helping our students as their make their journey from learning to becoming in preparation for any turbulence that may lie ahead.

Kelly Edmunds is an associate professor in Biological Sciences and Helen Leggett is a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

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