Training Learners to Fail Forward


When creating a story, writers often face the challenge of putting a character they like through painful situations, prompting experienced authors to encourage their students to “kill your darlings” for the sake of a good story or character development. No growth can come to characters if everything goes their way.

This challenge also exists for many instructional designers who want to encourage learners to succeed. However, in the same way, learners won’t grow without learning how to experience and adapt to failure. And learners who think they know the material are less likely to pay attention to even the most engaging learning experience. So it is vital that you catch their attention early by proving to them that they can fail and helping them develop the tools to manage failure.

Humans in general have a tendency to be failure-adverse, but innovation, creativity, and learning happen in the wake of failure. Encouraging learners to experience failure, especially in a “safe” environment like a training experience where the consequences can be felt without having a significant impact on business outcomes, engages learners’ attention and ignites their desire to succeed in future choices in the training experience.

In a simulation, this can be achieved with an early “no win” set of choices where the learner has to choose the “least worst” option and deal with the consequences. Remember that a simulation is a unique low-risk opportunity to experience the consequences of bad choices, so offering learners a moment of failure helps them understand the factors that feed into, and the results of, each decision. As you consider scenarios that could result in failure in your training experiences, however, you want to ensure that the experiences are helpful to learners and not just a pointless moment of frustration. For ideas about helpful types of failure you can include in a simulation scenario (and more on the importance of encouraging the right type of failure for growth), you can read Amy C. Edmonson’s great article in the Harvard Business Review about “Strategies for Learning from Failure.

Even learning experiences considered less-engaging can be enhanced by the concept of “failing forward.” For example, if you have a “page-turner” type course such as a slide deck, you can create a pre-test that includes the most challenging objectives the following material will teach. A low score on the pre-test (or, for some high-achievers, a score that’s less than perfect) will encourage them to pay attention. Another option that could create even more engagement and connect the training with an experience learners may recognize is to put the training they’re about to experience in the context of a challenging short scenario (you can do this with a written description and a few well-chosen stock images, if you’re low on budget or time). Not only will this challenge learners’ critical thinking and engage them more, but it will also show them right away the practical applications of the material.

Teaching failure to learners is vital, because many people have a general anxiety against failure which can make them risk-adverse. Learners need to understand not only that failure is inevitable in any business experience, but also should know how to adapt to and cope with it, and as an Instructional Designer, you can give them practice with the experience so learners can be more successful in their professional experiences.

Sara Crow is one of those perfectionists who hates getting less than 100% on anything and tends to consider anything less a failure. She’s worked with hundreds of industry professionals, clients, and subject matter experts to craft experiences for learners that allow them to experience the challenge of failing forward. Contact Sara with thoughts and questions at scrow@nexlearn.com.

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