Failure, Feedback, and Revision

A necessary cycle for learning

What is It?

Failure is a process, one that students and teachers go through regularly. It is an emotional process, one that involves identity, social conventions, peer relationships and, in the context of academia, the possibility of  cascading failures that could seriously affect one’s academic career. Failure is intimidating.
At the same time, a certain amount of failure is unavoidable in most of our academic processes — creative work, research, collaboration, writing. After all, no one writes a perfect first draft and the research question we begin a study with isn’t always the one we end on or find the most interesting. We confront failure regularly on our paths to success and it is possible — important, even — to share this experience of confronting and learning from failure with students.

One way of guiding students through encounters with failure is by offering feedback and encouraging revision. With feedback, focus on engaging the student with a problem rather than simply correcting it. Help them notice: Why did that fail? How did it miss expectations (mine, others’)? Where are there opportunities to change? What choices did I make that I could have made differently?

Revision is the student’s opportunity to respond to these questions. Oftentimes, revision is treated as a re-do, that classic childhood plea for a do-over. For some students and for some assignments, a second attempt at the same challenge is helpful. For others, revision needs to be a true re-seeing of the problem, meaning that students return to the big ideas, then apply and/or address them in new ways. Note that when the revision is to re-see the big ideas rather than re-do the original project, it is relevant and engaging for all students — not just for those who “failed’ in some way. See below for some examples.

A chainlink fence with a few links that appear to be transforming into birds flying away into the distance.

How-to Instructions and DIY

  • Google Apps — and Docs in particular — make it easy to share, give feedback, and revise a piece of writing.  Have a student compose in docs, share the doc with you, then use “suggesting” mode and comments to give feedback.
  • Screencasts using Kaltura Personal Capture,  Screencast-o-Matic, or Screencastify lets you record yourself giving feedback, while you point to the student assignment on your screen.

How Can I Use These Ideas  in My Course?

The most important — and possibly the most radical — thing you can do with these ideas is to see them from the point of view of your students. What are the impacts of failures, including impacts  on things other than a grade? Can you share anything of your experiences with failing? The important thing is not to avoid failure, but to treat it as part of a process rather than the end of one. Your feedback and the opportunities you offer for revision can communicate this to your students.

Feedback should encourage self-reflection, raise self-awareness and help students plan for future learning and practice. Make your feedback:

  1. Timely — it should be given as soon after student submits an assignment as possible so the process or interpretation is fresh in the student’s mind and before students move on to the next assessment. For assignments that are submitted online, it’s very important to acknowledge receipt of the student’s work as soon as possible, even if you don’t immediately review them.
  2. Specific — feedback should provide encouragement by identifying the good or successful elements. Keep your language clear and concise. Think carefully about avoiding confusion by using sarcasm, humor, abstract concepts, technical language or abbreviations.
  3. Constructive — provide suggestions to make students’ work better. Ask questions, give suggestions for follow-up or resubmission (if allowed) and give additional resources for students to review.
  4. Tied to learning goals and objectives — make suggestions on what steps in which order are needed to meet these criteria.

In Practice

This professor dedicates 5% of each student’s grade per semester to “quality of failure.” Find out your “error climate score” and get suggestions for improving by answering a few questions here.

VoiceThread, an audio/video recording tool, lets you give verbal feedback to students on their work. Check out this group, who experimented with the tool as well as the importance of peer feedback.

Revision as re-seeing may seem challenging depending on your assignments or discipline. Try having students re-see  test  questions  they missed by asking them  to write a series of questions that test the same concepts, then solve them. In this way, students can show not only that they can solve the problem, but that they understand just what the problem was.

For an essay revision, change the rhetorical situation and challenge students to rewrite for a new audience (peers, the public, professional colleagues, etc) or in a new context or medium. Check out this archive of digital humanities approaches to remix  and this archive on failure.


Dr. Sarah Stanley discusses feedback practices and valuing of student work.

Research Foundations

Carr, A. (2013). In Support of FailureComposition Forum,27, Web.

Evans, C. (2013). Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher EducationReview of Educational Research, 83(1), 70-120.

Steuer, G. Dresel, M. (2015).  A constructive error climate as an element of effective learning environments.  Psychological Test and Assessment Modeling,  57(2), 262-275.