Posted February 25, 2015 by Mara Dahlgren 

Is Failure Really the Best Learning Opportunity?

owl reading bookI’ve been reading articles on advising student organizations (I’m presenting on the topic at conference!), and I came across an article titled “Adviser as Mentor: A Different Paradigm” (2004). It examines some of the assumptions we make as advisors—one of them being around failure.

The author, Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, states that it’s common practice to assume that “a good adviser knows when to allow a student group’s program to fail because of poor planning or lack of follow through by some members” (p. 2). I can understand why this assumption has become so pervasive. With our understanding of student development, we need students to realize their actions or lack of actions have a consequence—that in life, there won’t be someone around to pick up the pieces to make something happen, and that they need to be the one in control of their life and their experiences. On the other hand, what do we really know about failure?

Do we know with certainty that it is the best learning tool? I read an article about the importance of failure in business because it allows business leaders the opportunity and time to reflect on what went wrong. While failure is valuable to many organizations outside higher education because they might not always have the chance to reflect on all their actions, the field of student affairs prides itself on using reflection as a learning tool on a regular basis. So what if we leveraged reflection instead of utilizing failure?

I may be wrong here. Failure really might be the best learning tool, but we don’t know that for sure. Humans need to learn how to make mistakes with grace, to learn from them, and to move forward, but is the cost too high for some of our students?

Article cited:

McCluskey-Titus, Phyllis. "Student organization adviser as mentor: A different paradigm?" National Association of Student Personnel Administrators NetResults (2004).

Mara Dahlgren

Mara Dahlgren is the Assistant Director, Activities & Events at Indiana University–Bloomington.

Mara serves as an advisor for the Indiana Memorial Union Board, helping student leaders and student employees plan events on campus. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and completed her master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University–Bloomington, where she gained experience in the operations side of the college union as the building manager.


Well said, Mara. It has been my experience that we place too high a value on some events/programs, making them "too big to fail." I am sure there are some that truly fit that model (no one wants to see Orientation fail, or large events sponsored by programming boards, or programs with a significant financial investment), while I also know my own limitations as a student organization advisor on when I'm willing to intervene. If their fundraising event is a bust, we're not at a big loss, and can learn from it to make the next attempt even better. If they are risking their very existence with an event or project that is about to go terribly wrong, I'm more likely to do what I can to help salvage it.
Jeff Pelletier
Comment posted 02/25/2015 3:43 PM
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