Joshua Eyler


Dr. Joshua Eyler is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University. He has published broadly on teaching, learning, literature, and popular culture and his research interests include the biological basis of learning, Chaucer, and disability studies. His current projects include the book How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching, which is under contract with West Virginia University Press.


Why Failure is Essential for Student Learning


Everybody knows that scientists walk into their labs and immediately make world-changing discoveries, right? And isn’t it true that writers, too, create their magnum opus on the first attempt? Of course not.

As academics, we long ago realized that research, discovery, and learning are lengthy processes marked by stops, starts, and a fair degree of failure before we come close to success, however that might be defined by our respective fields and universities. Higher education, on the other hand, does not often allow for this process of learning to play out. Students are frequently asked to achieve, on their first attempts, stellar results on high-stakes, high-pressure assessments. New research on the science of learning is beginning to show us that this strategy does not work well, though, because it is not how human beings naturally learn. We need to make mistakes before we can get the right answers. In this talk, I’ll be reviewing some of the most important findings in this new area of inquiry and suggesting ways that we can generate “opportunities for failure” in our courses so that our students may learn more effectively.


Learning Outcomes: After this session, participants will be able to:

1) Gain familiarity with the psychological and biological underpinnings of error.

2) Explain the applications of these scientific principles to our work as instructors.

3) Design at least one low-stakes opportunity for failure that they can include in a course they are teaching.

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