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Using Student Failure as a Pedagogical Tool in the History Classroom

Author: Andrew Koke

Type: Conference Presentation

History Passion Project

Recent attention in SOTL for historians has centered on acknowledging and learning from the failures of the educator and administrator, most notably present at the 2010 Teaching and Learning in History Conference at Oxford as well as the 2010 ISSOTL conference at Liverpool. This paper moves from the educator to the educated and asks how best to use student failure to motivate and instruct in the classroom.

In July and August of 2010 I taught a critical reading class at Indiana University for incoming freshman. Typically at IU a class will have a handful of assignments throughout the semester, usually between five and ten. A student's grade in the class is heavily dependent on all the assignments and a great deal of the grade burden is often placed on one or two particularly difficult tasks. This model of assessment, however, does not give much room for experimentation on the part of the student and also makes any bad grade possibly disastrous. Students tend to worry inordinately about what an instructor wants to see on a given assessment, rather than presenting what the student has actually learned. In short, this model punishes failure.

I decided for my class to instead have forty-five assignments throughout the semester covering a variety of common assessment techniques: one-minutes sentences, various quizzes, various paragraphs and essays, classroom presentations, research projects, and tests, to name a few. As a consequence of this teaching model students had to produce material for almost every class, but failing any given assignment did not ruin their final grade since there were many other assessments to offset a poor effort. Essentially, students were allowed to fail, at least to some extent.

Using a combination of analysis of grade distribution, feedback from students and other student comments, and analysis of student material, this paper will identify the pros and cons of using this model for student teaching. It seeks to suggest the efficacy of student learning based on failure as well as logistical issues for an instructor's consideration.

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