Helping Students Become Risk-Takers in Your Course

At Learning Innovation, we’re often asked by faculty what they can do to encourage students to take risks and understand the value of failure.  How do you use what’s been called “the educational power of discomfort”?

Many students often arrive at college having been outstanding performers in high school. They are used to being at the top of their class and the best at what they do. It can be difficult for some students to take chances and go beyond an easy high grade to explore something new. Getting students to think and act “out of the box”, to experiment, and to accept and learn from failure can be a challenge for faculty, particularly in the first two years of a student’s life at college.

Several faculty have written pieces with ideas for encouraging students to experiment and deal with failure and Duke faculty have used different techniques to help students achieve more in their courses.

Reward risk-taking

When putting together your syllabus, be clear about your learning goals and expectations, but also think about what represents true risk-taking in your course.  What aspects of gathering, interpreting, and using what they have learned is getting them “out of their comfort zone”?  Are there flexible ways to reward this in your grading?

Focus on actionable learning goals and skills

Some faculty ask students to complete work in stages, giving them an opportunity to turn in drafts and versions that can be improved over time. This can help students get past the basics of the course and strive to achieve their best work, which might not be possible with a high-stakes assignment that is only turned in once for a grade.

Focus on the process and progress

Teaching critical thinking skills goes beyond completing projects—students need an understanding of how processes work in your discipline. How can you design assignments that focus on steps in the process? Are there ways to encourage students to return to previous work to improve it? Are there ways to give feedback as assignments and projects progress in the course to encourage a deeper understanding of the processes they use in the work? How can you increase student responsibility as the course progresses?

Allow students to control learning paths

Many Duke faculty give students an opportunity to determine how they approach material or even vote or come to a consensus on how different aspects of the work count towards the final grade. Giving students a stake in how they learn—offering alternative paths in content or flexible assignments—and how the work is valued encourages them to be comfortable with the process and more clearly understand that they have control over their performance in the course.

Be specific about mistakes and reasons for failure.

It’s not enough for the student to know they got a question wrong or wrote an essay with problems—they need to be informed about where the mistakes were made so they can avoid them in the future. Students can perceive highlighting mistakes and wrong answers as the overriding factors in their course grade—consider ways that you can shift this conversation to improving performance and preparing the student for later work in their major, graduate school or professional career.

Ask hard questions, even when you don’t have the answers

Many students may not appreciate how your field is evolving and changing, with some questions and ideas that have been settled over time and other areas of research and investigation that have opened up new avenues for thought. What can you do your assignments and projects that bring students into the process of asking the hard questions in your discipline?

Further reading

For more ideas on helping students take risks, investigate these articles and resources on the web.  You can also contact Learning Innovation to talk with a consultant about ideas for your designing and improving your course.

Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education, Charity Johansson and Peter Felten

The Keys to Inquiry:  Big Messages to Communicate Around Learning from Experience (Harvard Everyday Classroom Tools)

Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes (Edutopia)

What Do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure (KQED News MindShift)

How to Help Kids Overcome Fear of Failure

Helping Students Fail: A Framework (teachthought)

The Value of Mistakes: Should It Matter How Long a Student Takes to Learn? (informED)

Failure is an Option: Helping Students Learn from Mistakes (Faculty Focus)

Wanted at Work: Take More Risks in College (LinkedIn)