Making Meaning Out of Failure

Risk and Failure: Needed for Growth

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

We all fear failure. Yet, the insights and new pathways gained through the experience of failure are as important as those achieved through what is perceived as success. As educators, we have an opportunity to help learners develop the resilience to navigate and strengthen their ongoing personal, academic, and professional development in response to setbacks. How can we foster these habits of mind in our learners who try to avoid failure at all costs?

What’s the evidence?

When learners realize that taking risks and failing are essential for developing clarity, understanding, and innovation, they learn how failing effectively ultimately leads to discovery and deep insight. learners who learn to welcome challenges, positioning setbacks as part of the process of growth, develop mastery because they do not attribute failure to a lack of intellectual ability (Murphy & Thomas, 2008).

Eduardo Briceño, Co-founder of Mindset Works, describes 4 types of mistakes: sloppy mistakes, aha-moment mistakes, high stakes mistakes, and stretch mistakes (2015).  He observes that stretch mistakes ensure from intentional risk-taking and, if the learner takes time to reflect on the experience, that type of mistake it is more likely to lead to growth and enduring learning than successful yet less ambitious work.  Stanford University’s Resilience Project hosts an annual event that features learner-produced creative works (stories, poems, videos) in which the authors recount and reflect on their “epic failures” (“The Resilience Project,” n.d.). Indeed, how often do we acknowledge and celebrate failure as a means rather than something to be avoided at all costs?

How the educator responds to mistakes can also influence learner effort. Research has shown  that learners who were praised for effort were more likely to persist and enjoy their work after experiencing failure than those who were praised for intelligence (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).

This graph shows that learners given praise for their effort were resilient and succeeded after failing once, but learners given praise on their intelligence were not resilient and kept failing.Image source:


  • Share with learners stories about when you failed and it led to improvement (Kreuter, 2011).  Kreuter observes, “when we forget or refuse to explain to learners how our own successes have so often arisen from seeming failures, we damagingly reinforce the mistaken notion that brilliance strikes suddenly.”
  • Encourage learners to take a step back and consider mistakes within the larger context of their learning process.  What did I hope to gain from the experience? What happened? Why do I think it happened? What can I learn from the outcome of this experience? What might I want to do differently next time? At Williams College, Mathematics professor Edward Burger systematically engages learners in reflection on their failure, which is 5% of the final grade (2012).
  • Attribute learner success to effort, not talent. Mueller and Dweck’s work (above) reminds us that the type of feedback we provide on learner work can impact learners’ interest in pursuing rigorous work that stretches them versus easy pathways in their studies.  In addition to providing suggestions for improvement, it’s important to recognize effort when the output is flawed. Learners are more likely to be able to learn from failure if the assignment takes an iterative approach to development, with drafts and feedback preceding the formally-submitted work.



Beckett, S. (1983). Worstward ho. New York: Grove Press.

Briceño, E. (2015, November 23). Why understanding these four types of mistakes can help us learn. Mindshift. Retrieved from

Burger, E. (2012, August 21). Teaching to fail. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Kreuter, N. (2011, October 7). The freedom to fail. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1). 33-52.

Murphy, & Thomas, (2008). Dangers of a fixed mindset. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 40(3), 271.