Teaching failures, blunders and catastrophes: learning from our mistakes

I recently organised a panel session on teaching failures. Three teaching award winners—Roslyn Kemp, Anthony Robins and Clinton Golding—shared some major failures in their teaching with a group of c.25 academics, and then we discussed what we might learn from these mistakes, and how best to relate to failures in teaching. This blog post summarises some of our ideas.


The failures we shared each involved trying something new, a major teaching innovation, that did not go to plan. Ros wanted to have all her students use I-Pads, Anthony redesigned the entire first year course for computer science (a course which fed into all the other papers offered by his department) and Clinton attempted to translate his face-to-face, discussion based teaching into distance learning and video conferencing. In each of these cases the students did not learn what we intended, hated it, or did more poorly than we expected.

Some underlying causes of the failures:

  1. Overconfidence in what we could achieve. We thought, “How hard can it be?” but underestimated what we could do. For example, Clinton underestimated how hard it was to manage the video conferencing technology while also facilitating learning.
  2. Assumptions about what students wanted or needed, or what would appeal to them, or what they could handle. For example, Anthony tested his new course content with demonstrators, on the assumption that his first years would respond in a similar way, but he underestimated the struggles of first year students with no programming experience.
  3. Assumptions about what will work based on past experiences, but which did not adequately reflect our current students. We all thought, “This should work!” but we failed to think about how we were teaching new cohorts of students and we could not assume that what worked for other cohorts of students would also work with this cohort.
  4. Mismatch of expectations between teacher and students. We often expected one thing from the students, while the students expected something else. For example, we expected critical thinking from students, but they expected to just be told the answers.
  5. Overreliance on a particular piece of technology or method with no backup plan

Different kinds of failure:

  1. Unexpected failure. My first time teaching via video conferencing was an unexpected failure. I thought it would be no problems as I had been teaching for a very long time and had won a number of teaching awards. But I had no idea of the cognitive demand of trying to manage the content, manage the class dynamics, and manage the technology all at the same time. I ended up rapidly exhausted and went into auto-pilot teaching where I said things but I didn’t really know what I was saying, just trying to get through it. This sort of failure is inevitable in your teaching as you can’t predict everything that might happen, and you can’t tell how your teaching will land until you have taught it.
  2. Failure that is invisible to the students. Sometimes we see our teaching as a failure but this may not be apparent to students. For example, after my initial unexpected failure with teaching via video conferencing, I ensured I had a number of backups in my teaching such as extra readings, and times to meet with me, so that even if my new teaching methods went badly, my students would still get valuable learning. This was one of the strategies for dealing with failure: have back-up plans that mean that even if you fail it won’t be an epic failure. For example, if the technology doesn’t work, make sure you have printed handouts as back-up.

Ways to manage and mitigate our teaching mistakes

  1. Plan for failure, and have back up strategies available, so you make sure you provide a great learning experience for students (while realizing that unexpected mistakes can and will happen).
  2. Realise that the first few years of teaching something new will be sub-optimal. But you can make sure they are not sub-par. In other words have a backup so the students have a decent learning experience while you experiment with giving them a great learning experience.
  3. Simplify your teaching: The panel members gradually simplified their teaching so we only use essential methods with fewer and fewer ‘frills’. For example, I often only use a whiteboard without a powerpoint, and I send extra notes to students afterwards. The simple methods have fewer distractions which mean the teacher has more cognitive capacity to listen to students and help them learn. This allows for maximum flexibility and reduces the threat of failure.
  4. Don’t make assumptions about what will work for your students, what they will be excited by, or what they can and can’t do. Ask your students, ask colleagues who know your students (eg who know first year Physics students at Otago), and test the methods to see what does and does not work for your particular students
  5. If a teaching methods fails, collect evidence about why it didn’t work and use the evidence to inform what you do next. Take a scientific approach to your teaching where you collect data and make changes to your teaching based on the data. You often will have incomplete evidence and so you have to hypothesise about what will fix a problem (sometimes the evidence doesn’t make it clear what the real problem is), then try a solution, evaluate whether it worked, and try a different solution if it failed.
  6. Look for feedback early so you can detect an imminent failure before it is a disaster. For example, find out if students are struggling before they hand in their assignments rather than while you are marking them. Then you can reteach what they misunderstood before it is too late.

How do you relate to failures?

  1. No blame. It is not the students fault, and it is not your fault (unless your teaching was irresponsible or reckless where you ignored issues that you knew were likely to lead to problems). If you planned well, based on good ideas about what good teaching is, based on knowledge of your particular students, and with a plausible plan for assisting them learn, then the ‘failures’ are a necessary part of learning how to teach well.
  2. Be kind to yourself: Everyone makes mistakes.
  3. Think: There are no failures, just possibilities for getting better. Essential for my academic development
  4. Think: How can I fix this? How can I provide a better learning experience next time? I call this taking an improvement or enhancement approach which is very different from blaming yourself or the students which does not allow for any improvement.
  5. Expectation or perception management. Find out what your students expect and if it deviates from what you expect, convince them that what you expect is better. For example, convince them that even though it is harder for them to come up with the answers, they will learn more and be better prepared for careers if they think independently.
  6. Develop self-efficacy as a teacher so you can ride out the mistakes confident that you are a good teacher, even though it is not going well right now.
  7. Persevere/persistence. Change takes time. Don’t give up because of an initial failure.
  8. But, occasionally run away and abandon a strategy that was a hopeless failure
Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Reflection and improvement

Meta-blog: Blogging as academic development



This blog is inextricably intertwined with my academic development practice. It is the result of my previous academic development work, it is my current personal academic development, and it leads to further academic development work for others.

  1. The blog summarises what I have learned from years of academic development. By working with many staff on many different issues of academic practice, and by reading the literature and conducting formal research on empowering academics, I have learned what the common problems are, and the fruitful solutions. The blog summarises the results of this informal, iterative, research into academic development.
  2. As I write the blog, I engage in my own academic development. As I write, I reflect on my practice as a teacher and academic, and I clarify, refine, elaborate and illustrate what I do, then I systematise this in a personal and useful theory of teaching and learning. What I end up with in the published blog is (I think) clear, well-illustrated, complex, informative and (hopefully) insightful accounts of different aspects of academic practice. Putting this another way, the blog is my informal micro-research about academic development. In the blog I develop and refine new ways of conceptualising academic development practices, and test how clear and informative they are.
  3. When I share the blog, it can facilitate and inform academic development for others. If I am consulting with a staff member about designing their course, I can share my blog posts about course design; if I conduct a workshop on supervision, I can send participants a link to my blog posts about supervising and postgraduate learning. What’s more, the blog allows for wide dissemination of this academic development advice and support. I don’t have to be personally involved in the academic development.
  4. Finally, the blog is also a model for how others can engage in reflective academic development about their own practice.
Posted in Higher education

Tips for writing a convincing thesis

Here is a blog I wrote for Times Higher Education on writing a convincing thesis.


Posted in Postgraduate education

Learning to write is like learning to play tennis: written feedback is not always useful

Sometimes giving feedback on student writing is straightforward. They have missed something important, so we tell them what they didn’t know, or we tell them to do what they missed: for example, “criterion is singular and criteria plural”, or “You need to put the reference in brackets.”

But written feedback telling our students how to write is not always so useful. Sometimes our students need to learn things that cannot be conveyed by written feedback. Leaning to write involves developing very complex skills – for instance, knowing how to make a clear point, or how to link one idea to the next – and these skills are learnt in the same way we learn to play tennis. Giving written feedback on these writing skills is like reading a book to learn how to swing a racquet. Instead, the skills can only be learned by isolating them and then practicing, using regular feedback from an expert coach to improve our performance.

The process of learning is something like this:

  1. Teacher gives instruction about what the aim is and how to achieve this
  2. Student attempts it
  3. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  4. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim and tries again
  5. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  6. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim, and tries again
  7. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  8. Keep repeating until student has met the aim, and is at the adequate level of performance


An example of this process for writing might be something like this:

  1. Teacher explains that a paragraph should only make one main point, and gives an example
  2. Student writes one paragraph, attempting to only make one main point
  3. Feedback from the teacher: “I can’t tell what main point you were making. What is the main point? Tell me out-loud and then write this down.”
  4. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to make it about the main point they said out-loud
  5. Feedback from the teacher: “I can see that you have included this main point in the paragraph, but you have also included this point and this point. Can you see that they are three different points, where each is about a different topic? You need to break this into three paragraphs, one for each point.”
  6. Student re-writes one paragraph, attempting to isolate only the first main point
  7. Feedback from teacher: “Great, it looks like you are only writing about the one main point. However if I didn’t know your topic, I couldn’t tell what the main point is in your paragraph because you have hidden it as the third or fourth sentence in the paragraph. Re-write the paragraph so the first sentence is the main point, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates this main point.”
  8. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to put the main point in the first sentence.
  9. Feedback: “Great, you got it! Now try this again on a different paragraph, and I’ll give you some feedback.”

This process is effective for several reasons. First, it isolates a specific skill needed for academic writing which the student can concentrate on, rather than swamping them with vast amounts of feedback on multiple different skills. Second, it is quick and easy to do for a student. The student only has to complete a small task which takes very little time (much less than writing a whole chapter), and so they can quickly repeat multiple iterations (sometimes during a supervisory meeting), improving each time. Third, it is quick and easy for the teacher. Rather than having to struggle through an entire chapter where there are problems in every paragraph, the teacher is able to give quick feedback just when the student needs it to improve. Lastly, it allows the student to adjust their performance of the writing skill. It is never enough to tell them how to write a good paragraph – they can say “I get it” but their performance indicates they do not. Students need to try it, find out where they are going wrong, then adjust and try again, find out how to get better and then adjust, etc.

Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing

Engaging teaching

Why am I interested in learning about some things (movie history) but I couldn’t care less about other things (motorcycle engines)? If we can crack the secret of intellectual curiosity we can make our teaching engaging for any student.

Posted in Learning, Learning to teach, Uncategorized

Promising leads for improving teaching

There are many ways to improve teaching, but in my experience when enhancing my own teaching or mentoring other teachers, there are three paths that are most likely to lead to improvement.

1. Covering too much

We commonly try to cover too much for students to digest, especially when we first start teaching a topic and we don’t yet know how long it takes to cover the material. For example, our lecture might be so full that we have to move to the next powerpoint slide before students have a chance to read it, let alone to understand it.

Path to improvement: Cut what you include so you only cover the essential and fundamental material. Make sure you give students enough time to understand what you say (which takes much longer than the time required to say it).

2. Mismatch of expectations

What we want from our students is often different from what they expect to do, and what students expect from their teacher is often different from what we are offering. For example, students expect to be given the lecture slides before the lecture, but the lecturer doesn’t want to do this; students expect to do less readings than the lecture expects them to do; students expect to be told the right answers, while the teacher expects independent critical thinking. Incompatible expectations like these often underlie troubles in teaching, though they are not always apparent. For instance, you might think your students are unprepared or lazy, but actually the problem is that they expect to be able to silently listen to a lecture while you expect them all to contribute to class discussions.

Path to improvement: First, find out what students expect. For example, their complaints and requests written in evaluation questionnaires are often a good indicator of their expectations. Second, judge whether giving them what they expect will help their learning. If it will help their learning, for example getting more feedback, then find a way to give them what they want. If it will not help their learning, then convince them why your way is better. It is not enough to tell them why you are not doing what they expect, you have to win them over so they see the merit in your approach.

See my other post, Disciplined learning, for more ways to motivate students to do what is good for their learning, even when they are reluctant to tackle these learning tasks.

3. Our teaching doesn’t work for these students

Sometimes how we teach, or the way we explain something, fails to work for our current students, even though it normally works, or it worked with a different group of students in a different context. The problem is a mismatch between our teaching methods and our particular students,  because we don’t know these particular students well enough. See my other post, Teaching is about who you know, for more on why knowing our students is necessary for teaching.

Path to improvement: First, find out more about your students so you can judge what is likely to stimulate their learning. Find out about their interests, plans for the future, prior learning, expectations of the course, etc. See my other post, Getting to know your students, for more on how you might get to know your students before you teach them.

Second, regularly check what your students understand so you can judge if your teaching has worked, or if you need to modify your approach. For example, ask multi-choice questions during class, or ask students at the end of your lecture to write for you what they now understand, and what they don’t yet understand. If most of your students give the wrong answer, or most students don’t understand something you have taught, you know that your approach to teaching this material was not effective for these students. You then need to reteach it for your current students, and teach it differently for the next group.

Posted in Learning to teach, Mentoring, Students | 1 Comment

Digging deeper: How do I tell where to drill?

When we write academically, one of our main tasks is to deeply explore the topics we write about. It is not enough to present a superficial overview, so we need to drill deep. Yet it is often difficult to judge where we need to go deep, or whether we have gone deep enough. Many students think they have deeply explored a topic, only to find that their marker disagrees.

To figure out how I deepen my own writing, I ‘reverse engineered’1 my own process of thinking. This might provide some guidance for tackling an otherwise mysterious process of digging deeper.

How do I judge where to drill?

First I sketch an overview of the topic to get the lay of the land. I need a map of the intellectual terrain that shows the relationships between all the main ideas, points or concepts which I could investigate. For example, if I’m writing about reflective practice, the overview might include ideas such as Gibbs reflective cycle, reflection as learning, the difference between reflection and learning, reflection on practice, and reflection as practice. I might also isolate the different elements involved in reflective practice such as uncovering assumptions, evaluating past practice, planning future practice, etc.

Next I rank the most promising areas for drilling. I look at each idea and decide which are the main ideas important for understanding the overall topic, or which need the most attention (perhaps because of some gaps in our understanding), or which ideas I am most interested in.

Finally I choose to focus on only the top ranked ideas, and I include only the quantity of ideas I can cover in the available time and word limit. For example, if I only have 1500 words and one week, I might choose to only investigate one of the main ideas, such as uncovering assumptions as one important aspect of reflective practice.

Sometimes I explain how I judge where to focus my investigation using the metaphor of travelling to a new city, rather than the metaphor of drilling. This is a useful way of understanding a research project like a thesis. A research topic is like a new city, and I start my exploration by wandering around the new city, reading almost randomly, until I have a good sense of the whole map. But you cannot research the whole city, so next I have to choose one building to explore, and one floor within that building, and one room within that floor in which I will work for an extended period of time. This means my research is on the city, the whole topic, but I investigate the city by working in depth on only one small area.

How do I judge if I have gone deep enough?

I start by asking what needs elaboration, justification and illustration about the idea that I am probing. For example, what do I mean by an assumption and what do I mean by uncovering an assumption? Why is this important for reflective practice? What is an example of someone uncovering an assumption, and how does this example illustrate the process of reflective practice?

I write my answers to these questions, and then ask about this new writing: what needs elaboration, justification and illustration? For example, if I described uncovering as assumption as finding out my prejudices, then I now need to answer the questions: what do I mean by a prejudice and what is an example of a prejudice?

I keep writing further drafts, and re-reading what I have written, looking for anything that needs explanation, justification and illustration until there is nothing more to elaborate, justify or illustrate, and the questions no longer arise. Then I know I can’t go any deeper.

Sometimes when I tackle 2 or more ideas, I write so much about one of the ideas that I can no longer fit all the ideas into my available word limit. In this case I have to delete one of the less important ideas as I cannot do justice to all of them. I might replace the deleted idea with a phrase like: “Another important idea is reflection during practice, rather than reflection after practice, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.”


[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

Posted in Reflection and improvement, Writing