Bob Galloway, professor of biomedical engineering, explicitly discusses scientificfailure with students in all of his courses in an attempt to encourage studentswith less scientific training to take an active part in the class. This strategy elicits more participation fromstudents who are often reticent or shy. Return to Top
Professor Galloway sees the each of the students as unique individuals with strengths and weaknesses that can be used. As such,his ultimate goal is to help each student perform to their highest level.
Much of thisattitude is conveyed to the students during the first days of class when hetells them that this class is 50% about learning and 50% about thinking. For Galloway, the knowledge they bring into theclassroom is only part of the equation. How they did in previous classes isn't the limiting factor. He explicitly tells them that what they'vebeen and who they are (A student, F student, marginalized, etc.) does notdetermine who they can become and that learning to think can change theirworld. First and foremost, he emphasizesthat as engineers they are thinkers. Infact he wants them to know that the worst they can do is not to try. He finds that this surprises students whotend to think that giving the wrong answer is the fatal error.
Galloway makesthese statements to create an atmosphere of partnership in the classroom; a partnership of professor and studentworking against lack of understanding and overcoming fear; a partnership of student and student workingin teams to benefit from their shared knowledge.
During thecourse he continues this emphasis by using classroom examples that highlightfailure, specifically failures in design and implementation which theoreticallyshould have worked. He then shows howlearning came out of examining the failure. In this way, students are shown that failing is actually a normal partof science.
In addition toleveling the playing field in this way, he also uses a lot of peer-peerteaching during office hours. Not onlydo the students learn from each other but the weaker students are often thefirst to office hours and therefore get to share they're experience with thehigher achieving students.Return to Top
This example deals with diversity of educational background among students. Knowing that each student enters the class with strengths and weaknesses, andthat many students feel inadequate when they compare their academic backgroundto other students' preparation in background subjects, the professor stressesusing their strength and not any perceived failures from the past. Student performance is often limited by theirown perceptions of their ability. Thisapproach of clearing-the-slate allows students who believe themselves to be weakerto gain confidence and thus perform better. Return to Top
Recommendations for Adaptation:
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- Examine the learning goals of your course curriculum. Think about what is heavily linked to priorknowledge/training and expertise demonstrated in prerequisite courses. What portion of the material and concepts arenew to the entire group?
- Decide which you want your students to master - concepts or data or what combination of the two. Then emphasizethe ability of each student to come to mastery of that portion. All of the STEM disciplines rely heavily onthe application of concepts in the thought processes of practitioners.
- Find examples of experimental failures within your discipline and, if possible,find ones related to the content you are teaching. You may even be able to share some of yourown experimental failures. Help studentssee what was attempted and why, but also why the failure was a learningexperience. This will not only reinforce the idea that experiments are a string of attempts many of which fail, but it will demonstrate for students how to examine the process incrementally.
- Think about wherethe content of your course touches on real-life. Are some segments of the population at adisadvantage in having access to the results of this work, i.e. expensivetesting equipment for blood sugar/diabetes at-home monitoring, and how mightthe students in your class seek to address this differential? Are some segments of the population addressedmore specifically by the material, i.e. African-Americans and sickle-cellanemia? Be creative in thinking throughthe implications of your topic. Eachgroup you touch on may help a student in the class feel the relevance of thematerial for them and others like them.
Things to Consider:
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- Grading rubrics must match what you want to reinforce for your students. Carefully select activities and problems thatyou allow students to demonstrate concept mastery, if that is what you state inthe beginning. Consider designing orallowing for failure in controlled ways in your classroom. Minimize contradictions between your statedgoals and what you test for to avoid confusing students.
- The reinforcement of this idea that past performance does not dictate presentsuccess must be a theme that runs throughout the course. Some of your students will not believe yourstatements until much later in the course than others. If possible, verbal praise for attempting newthings will help to reinforce. Helpingstudents to deconstruct a failure and examine it will also help them to learnin the scientific manner.
Nemeth, C.J. (1985). Dissent, Group Process,and Creativity: The Contribution of Minority Influence. Advances in Group Processes,
(2), 57-75.Return to Top