“Fail often to succeed sooner”- IDEO

By Katherine Lithgow

I noticed these words on the door as I entered an instructor’s office, and commented on how appropriate they were, particularly in light of the fact that we were meeting to discuss how eportfolios could be used to help her students. She wanted to incorporate their use into a project her students would begin in the winter 2010 term and complete the following winter 2011 term with different aspects of the project being addressed in a number of different courses. Eportfolios are being used in several courses and programs on-campus, and elsewhere, to help students integrate learning that takes place across courses, over time, and to make connections between what they are learning in the classroom with what they are learning in the workplace, in the community and in social environments. More important, they are used to help students develop life-long learning habits that they will continue to develop and use well after they graduate.
Making ConnectionsWhile eportfolios can serve a variety of purposes ranging from tracking growth and development over time to showcasing best work, they are most effective when they are used in ways that incorporate reflection, are personally meaningful to the learner, and help learners discover “where [they] are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there” (Barrett, 2005). In short, they are most powerful when they are used as ‘assessment for learning’ rather than ‘assessment of learning’ (Barrett, 2005).
So what do eportfolios have to do with IDEO’s saying “Fail often to succeed sooner”? In the university environment, mistakes and misconceptions are often viewed as weaknesses. However, as IDEO recognizes, success comes when we learn from our mistakes. As one student explained in his eportfolio, “I choose to see these failures as part of the learning process. … When I take beginners snowboarding with me, I make them fall. If you don’t fall, it means you’re not trying hard enough.” He goes on to explain that the critical reflections in a particular section of his eportfolio relate to “times I tried so hard that I fell. Writing about these times is how I pick myself up to try again”.
Learning comes from encountering situations, feelings and understandings that cause us to question our beliefs, understandings and values.   In contrast to most assignments in higher education where students are rewarded for their ‘excellent’ work, and are penalized for mistakes, learning eportfolios can provide a safe place for students to reflect on what they have learned, how they are learning , what they will do to move forward to achieve goals, as well as receive constructive feedback to their reflections. In a world that changes so rapidly, we cannot expect to teach students everything. What we can do is help them learn about how they learn, help them integrate their learning, give them the opportunity to go beyond the syllabus and make their learning personally meaningful. In so doing, we are helping students take responsibility for their learning.
Eportfolio use is increasing as higher education responds to a number of forces including a growing interest in student-centred active learning, the influence of digital communication technologies, accountability requirements (in Ontario,  the adoption of the Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations –UDLEs),  and the emphasis on experiential learning (Clark & Eynon, 2009). Please contact me klithgow@uwaterloo.ca for more on how eportfolios are being used on-campus and elsewhere, and how you might incorporate them into your course or program.
Interested in more information about eportfolios?
Contact Katherine Lithgow – klithgow@uwaterloo.ca
Barrett, H. (2005). White paper: Researching electronic portfolios and learner engagement. The Reflect Initiative. Retrieved September 2, 2009 from http://www.taskstream.com/reflect/whitepaper.pdf
Miller, R., & Morgaine, W. (2009). The benefits of e-portfolios for students and faculty in their own words. AAC&U Peer Review, 11 (1). Retrieved September 2, 2009 from http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-wi09/pr-wi09_benefits.cfm
Clark, J.E., & Eynon, B. (2009). E-portfolios at 2.0-Surveying the field. AAC&U Peer Review, 11 (1). Retrieved September 2, 2009 from http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-wi09/pr-wi09_eportfolios.cfm

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Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.

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