Learning from Challenge and Failure – Julie Timmermans


This year’s University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference theme, Leaning from Challenge and Failure, is an opportunity to open up discussions with our colleagues, our students, and ourselves around the beliefs we hold about challenges, setbacks, and failure in the context of teaching and learning at the University.

How do these beliefs shape the ways in which we teach, learn, and lead? How do we work to cultivate a culture that encourages risk-taking, growth through experimentation, and learning from our earnest attempts that lead to failure? What measures can we put in place to ensure that the members of our community have the opportunity to flounder, perhaps fail, and flourish?

During the Conference, we will explore not only challenges and failures, but the work of learning from these challenges and failures. The difficult cognitive and emotional work of learning from these experiences does not happen automatically or autonomously. It takes time and must be guided by people who care deeply about our development.

Airing our experiences of challenge and failure publically may certainly feel vulnerable and risky. But what might be the risks of not sharing these stories? Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) publishes annual ‘Failure Reports’ in which they highlight a dozen or so stories of failure – and learning from failure – in their international development efforts. This is risky in many ways – financially, for an organization that depends on contributions from donors; emotionally, for the people in the field sharing their stories. But EWB has determined that the benefits of disclosing these failures outweigh the costs of hiding them. Because hiding them does not help them, or other organizations, solve the problems which they are hoping to solve – poverty, access to clean water, food security, etc. This approach recognizes that we are involved in a collective endeavour to improve our communities.

As we began to introduce and discuss the Conference theme with others on campus, we discovered that conversations about failure, challenge, and resilience are already going on in residence rooms and in meetings rooms. Often, however, these rooms are behind closed doors. Through the Conference, we hope to bring these conversations out into the public spaces of our University – a learning organization – so that when we share our stories of innovation, experimentation, and publication, they integrate the stories of uncertainty, failed attempts, and rejections. Because the whole story of our successes often include failure. We hope that the Conference will be one space of many in which we can collectively explore our potential to learn and grow from challenge and failure.

For links to resources on learning from challenge and failure, including an excellent blog series from the Faculty of Arts Teaching Fellows and CTE’s Kyle Scholz, please visit the “Resources“section of the Conference website.

Register for the Conference

Resiliency in the Classroom – Martin Smith

For some reason the other day I was thinking about an old friend from my undergraduate days who once said to me, “I really don’t think I’m smart enough to do well in school.”  As a result of this memory, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon what it means to be resilient in the classroom.  For The Power of Resilience authors Brooks and Goldstein, resilience is the ability to adapt under different situations with a positive mindset(1).  To simplify their model, they suggest resilience occurs when we can each identify negative mindsets in our life, set goals to change a negative mindset and replace the negative mindset with a positive one in order to meet our goals.  But how does this translate into the classroom?  What does it mean to be a resilient student?
If we apply this to students, they are constantly adapting to new learning environments such as new classes as they progress through their studies towards the end of their degree.  Therefore, to me, a resilient student must be someone who can readily adapt to new unfamiliar topics and set goals to understand them. If, for example, a math student thinks, “I am bad at statistics…” how will this mindset influence their ability to succeed in the classroom when they have to take a new statistics class? If you were to compare this against a similar student that enters the class with a positive outlook I think most people would agree that the math student with the negative mindset is more likely to quit when faced with adversity because they believe they are bad at statistics. On the other hand, the student with a positive outlook will be more likely to succeed.  It makes me wonder exactly how common this type of negative mindset really is.  Hopefully if we are privy to them, situations where negative mindsets have taken hold will become obvious and we can help students find positive mindsets to achieve their goals.
I’m happy to say my friend has gone on to successfully defend her MSc and is now doing well in medical school.  Apparently, she found her resilience!
(1) Brooks, R. and Goldstein, S. The Power of Resilience: achieving balance, confidence and personal strength in your life. (2004) McGraw-Hill, USA.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.