Failing to Succeed

Part of my presentation last week to the teachers of Aruba involved the formula on effort that is in Tapping Student Effort…Increasing Student Achievement.


The formula reads: “Effort times ability focused on a manageable task equals success.” We discussed in Aruba the value of teachers consciously teaching students ”how to effort” (Some of you may call that “how to study”). I stress this because I find that many students do not know how to study. We ask them,” Did you study?” and they say ,”Yes!” and we say, “How long?” and they say, ”Awhile”

One strategy I offer was to have students score their major projects with an effort score, 1-10, and then defend their rating. Examples might be:

Score 6: I worked hard on the report, but I waited too long to begin. I did leave time to do more extensive research.

Score 3: I was able to solve each of the problems on my first attempt.

Score 9: While I was unable to solve half of the problems, I worked on them for over 4 hours over the weekend. I tried several strategies. I reviewed the last chapter in the text to see if I could identify what I was missing in my approach.

I believe such scoring would create critical teacher/student dialogue that would promote continued effort. I remember my daughter working hard on a project and getting a low grade. Her future effort was limited. I don’t question that the grade was accurate. If she had explained the effort she put in, I am certain the teacher would have instigated a conversation….. If you worked that hard and didn’t get better results, let’s talk. Something is wrong. You are using the wrong strategy or missing key understanding, etc. Let me encourage you and let’s start again.

If the student with the score of 3 in the above example did get all the problems correct, the teacher needs to change the kind of assignment. He needs an assignment that requires effort.

Back at my hotel in Aruba, I found a newspaper article in Aruba Today (September 27, 2008) written by Thomas O’Malley, titled, The Secret of Success: Fail a Little:

O’Malley suggested,” We all need to fail a little. In fact, the secret of success, might just be that. The lessons of failure are an important part of the curriculum of success. We learn from them…..they push us to do better……they teach us humility.”

Patience and persistence are part of defining effort and are critical to success.

“As a teacher, I expect my students to revise their work, to build on the ‘failure’ of the first draft to achieve clarity and insight in the final draft. That’s a good model for most things in life.”, wrote O’Malley.

So failure along the way can be considered as a sign of effort. Students could report their failures as a way of justifying their effort score.

This concept aligns with John Maxwell’s writing comparing Failing Forward with Failing Backwards:



Footnote: Failing Forward:Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, John Maxwell(2000) Maxwell Motivation, Inc, Georgia (pg8)

Creating opportunities for students to debrief cause and effect of their decisions around effort can create new learning that can last a life time. Arts and athletic coaches often invest the time in these conversations. What opportunities can you find to do the same?

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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