Earlier this week, a friend & colleague (Dr. Misty Paig-Tran, @FABBLab) tweeted about some trying to get her students onboard with doing experimental (as opposed to cookbook) science in the classroom:
At Allegheny College, where I teach, we run into this a lot in our sophomore seminar “Investigative Approaches in Biology”. It’s a great course – students rotate among a few faculty members throughout the semester, they do a base experiment, and then groups desgin their own experiments, complete them, write them up, and present them to the class. For my module, students experiment with shark tooth puncture forces.
Because there isn’t much published on it, everyone is doing something that isn’t in the literature. There’s no right answer to look up, and it takes awhile to get comfortable with that. They’re not all quite there by the end of this class, but they do understand that we do research because we want to know the answers, not necessarily because they exist already.
Students at Allegheny complete a senior comprehensive project (thesis, or “comp”) that has to be an original work of scholarship. In biology, that means students are expected to complete scientific research (see my website for a list of what my students do). Research and communication skills are scaffolded into our curriculum, and we have a “junior seminar” that helps move our students toward developing their comp projects. This is daunting – they are nervous because they truly are responsible for an entire research project themselves (with support from their professor). I get the same questions during junior seminar every year: “What if my comp fails to work? What if I get no data? What if my data is wrong? How will I know if I’m doing it right? THEY WON’T LET ME GRADUATE!”
For the record, they will let students graduate if the comp doesn’t work – stuff happens in the lab, and they only have 2 semesters to work on this.
These two classes have more in common than research skills: they share students’ fear of the unknown and of being wrong. It’s a fear of failure. That sets up some big barriers to the learning we’re trying to accomplish here. The psychological and pedagogical literature is chock-full of studies that demonstrate the effects of this fear. It’s not just that people may miss opportunities or not turn in assignments in a classroom setting. There are documented effects on physical and mental health as well. On top of that, first-gen and traditionally underrepresented students are more likely to feel its effects.
So what do we do? We embrace a pedagogy of failure and we give our students the tools to work with failure. We also, as faculty and staff, have to make room to allow our students to fail. My co-conspirators and I here at Allegheny have been working to write & present our strategies for how to do this in peer-reviewed venues (and in delightful irony, have been failing in our endeavors).
And this brings me back to Misty’s tweet. My response to her was to teach her students about failure and how to be use stupidity productively, and that I do this on the second day of class in my junior seminar. I have also done this for incoming first year students during orientation and for faculty at workshops on campus, using the exact same materials across the board. In fact, the classroom activities I do for this particular lesson are so appreciated by my students, that when I was giving a poster on a lesson I teach for a SERC workshop on teaching paleontology, they asked me to make my poster about the failure/stupidity lesson. That’s some high praise from my students and is an indicator that we’re doing something right with this.
After I tweeted my response, the requests for the teaching materials started rolling in. Instead of sending the same emails over and over again, I decided that it would be best to just make my files available here for anyone that wants them, plus list out below what you need for the class:
- Reading (no paywall!): M.A. Schwartz, 2008. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science 121: 1771. (yes it’s really only 1 page long, and yes it’s written in non-jargon).
- Class plan (“Stupidity in Research” word document in the Google folder)
- Poster that I gave at SERC that puts everything in context (“SERCposterWhitenack.pdf” in Google folder)
- Powerpoint that I use for the class (“1_stupidity.ppx” in Google Folder)
- Freedom to Fail Rubric by Andrew Miller that I give to my class
I think that the key things about this lesson that make successful are as follows:
- I don’t actually use the word “failure” until the end of the class period. There’s too much baggage with that word and it shuts people down.
- Humor. If you know me personally, the plethora of cartoons won’t surprise you.
- Being vulnerable. I share stories about my personal failures and how I was able to move into growth mindset before I ask students to. I also tell stories that aren’t easy, because telling the easy story is disingenuous and doesn’t encourage your students to be vulnerable. For example, my first semester of undergrad – I failed Calculus III and barely missed academic probation (concert band saved me), largely because I didn’t have any study skills and didn’t know you could drop a class. My parents wanted to pull me out and have me go to an “easier” university. In the end, I graduated in 4 years with a 2.98 GPA. Clearly things turned out ok for me, but we talk about the mental shift that I needed and how I accomplished that.
- Not treating this as a one-and-done. This isn’t something you teach once and you’re good to go. You need to reiterate the take-aways throughout the semester, or beyond the semester if you have the students over multiple semesters.
Go forth, be vulnerable, and teach.