Fail Safe, Fail Fast: One Creative Solution to College Completion


Jeff King, Ed.D., Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching & Learning, University of Central Oklahoma

Dr. Randy Bass of Georgetown University teaches a course in which he asks students to design the kind of learning environment they think would work best for them, to “design the college of the future” that is best built and run in order to help students learn.

Over the terms he has taught this course, he reports that students frequently create similar designs because certain aspects and characteristics are commonly described. One that is often mentioned is a safe place to fail in service to learning.

In many ways, the business-as-usual college is not a safe place to fail simply because there are few places to do so without losing the academic currency you’re trying to accumulate; namely, grades. Failing reduces your net worth; passing increases your net worth.

It can be a dog-eat-dog world for students in higher education.

Contrast this with an environment such as that posited by the Georgetown students. In their university, the fact that you fail on the way to learning is not something you’re penalized for; rather, you fail safe and fail fast on your way to learning (i.e., achieving course, program, and institutional outcomes). When you think about it, this is the natural human process of learning.

The infant learning to walk fails safe and fails fast — her mom is nearby, protectively scaffolding the support to take those first tentative steps, no matter how many times the “failure” of lurching off balance and landing kersplat occurs. The point is, this process isn’t thought of as “failing”; it’s called, “learning to walk.”

And that’s what the Georgetown students are advocating for. This can’t happen, though, in a class with a couple of tests, a mid-term, and a final — those constitute summative, high-stakes engagements where failing costs you dearly.

On the other hand, a class in which failing is “fast” because constant formative assessment occurs — ongoing feedback meant to help students correct course during the process of learning — is also one in which that kind of “failing” is also safe: it’s not thought of as failing, it’s thought of as learning to walk.

So what about this creative solution for college completion:

The process of learning is safe, scaffolded, and iterative because constant feedback is provided, and “failing” is called “learning” as students advance toward achieving the learning outcomes. At certain summative points throughout the class, tests are then not so fearful because students have “failed fast, failed safe” during the constant-feedback process of correcting course as they develop skills and acquire knowledge.

Fail fast, fail safe, then prove what you know and can do. This may be a creative approach to help students learn that isn’t really that creative at all.

Ask any two-year-old.


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