Failure and Creative Recovery: Thoughts from a College President

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This article by Raynard S. Kington, president of Grinnell College, originally appeared in the April 28, 2017 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Deeply embedded in the culture of liberal arts colleges is the notion that students, and to some extent faculty members and even institutions, should push themselves intellectually into unfamiliar areas of knowledge. We encourage students to enroll in courses across the curriculum and even provide incentives by allowing a limited number of courses to be taken pass-fail.

But if we really want to push ourselves and our students intellectually, we must be prepared to accept a certain degree of failure. Many teachers even go so far as to suggest that few if any of us can truly learn without it. Failure itself can be either good or bad; it is what we do next that determines whether the experience is positive or negative. Colleges can do more to make the experience positive for students by helping them recover and learn.

Probably the most important experience in my academic life was an early failure. I was a new 10th-grade student at a science-and-engineering high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. I had entered an advanced college-preparatory program a year later than other students in my class, but I wasn’t worried. I had been a top student and had two older brothers who had preceded me at the school, so I thought I knew the ropes. I took the first algebra exam, and it was returned to me with a grade of 50. I went home with tears running down my face. But in the wake of my surprise and disappointment, I didn’t mark this failure as inevitable. Instead I went to work.

My parents were great — they never doubted that I could excel in this class, and I was especially motivated because I believed that the teacher actually expected me, one of two African-American students in the class of about 30, to fail. My mother went with me to a local bookstore, and we bought several math problem practice books. As soon as I got home every day, I would go to my bedroom to study. Each day I would work through another section of the practice books on top of the math assignments from the class. I ended up near the top of the class.

That experience changed my view of myself. I found that I could be successful when I focused and studied. I don’t know if I would have excelled academically later if I had not had that first painful failure to motivate me. Even now, in my seventh year as president of Grinnell College, I continue to learn about leading an institution of higher education, and perhaps my greatest learning occurs with a stumble.

I sometimes talk with students about that first experience of academic failure and encourage them to immerse themselves in new areas of knowledge and areas where they have struggled in the past. I push them to learn from the experience. The risk of failure—that we might not “get it”—is the price we pay for the gift of new knowledge, and knowledge is at the core of our mission and our efforts to make the world a better place.

As much as our faculty and staff members encourage students to explore intellectually, we, like most colleges, rarely recognize students who fail, learn from that, and then recover. So this past fall, our analytic support office, working with our student academic support staff, reviewed the grades of all students to identify the ones who increased their GPAs last semester. I sent a note to each of the 20 students who had the biggest improvements to say that I had noticed their turnaround and to keep up the good work.

We have conducted detailed interviews with those students to explore how the college can help more students rebound after a difficult academic period and will soon present our findings to the faculty. While 20 emails do not change a culture, I hope that these students get the message that the college believes in helping them learn, including learning how to recover from an academic stumble.

There are a number of other ways that colleges can focus on helping students recover from failure. Here are some of the things we’re trying:

Using faculty reports to identify students in trouble. Last year, in addition to the option that faculty members had of communicating with the dean of student success about students who were struggling, we began requiring instructors to provide a simple report—solid performance, marginal performance, or risk of failing—at midsemester for all first-year students. As a result, we have been able to identify a number of students who are having difficulty but who have not received an academic progress report, and we have been able to intervene earlier.

Using data to identify students in trouble. We have expanded our analytic function to help us recognize early indicators of difficulty. For example, we have learned that a small drop in GPA from one semester to the next, even within the A-B range, is an independent predictor of a student’s leaving the college before graduating, whether for academic or nonacademic reasons. Advisers now reach out to those students.

Supporting students who struggled in their first semester. To catch those at risk even earlier, we have created a pilot program that uses postbaccalaureate fellows working with faculty advisers and mentors to help students who struggled in their first semester. The program includes a weekend retreat at the start of their second semester, dedicated group study hours, academic tutoring, shared calendars with all of the major assignments for all of the participants, weekly group meetings, and a weekly group lunch. In this program, students are learning how to turn themselves around academically.

Our college, like many institutions, already has several ways in which we recognize sustained excellence in our students, and that is great. Most of our students do as well as we would predict. But some are encountering their very first academic failure here, and we can do more to help them recover.

By learning from our students’ failures as an institution and expanding our support programs in creative ways, we will build an even stronger college and help prepare all of our students for the inevitable failures that will come their way. As I know well from personal experience, the times that are the most instructive in life often begin with a failure.

 

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