For the online learning world

Learning design

Allow yourself to fail, you might just learn something

Why is failure always considered a bad thing?

In digital education, we are too often presented with self-paced courses comprising pages with too much text, hopefully the occasional interactive activity, and a number of digital assessments.

Whether the digital learning contains small formative self-assessments (eg. the infamous knowledge check) or a pass/fail summative assessment at the end of an item of learning, more often than not any failure is seen as a negative outcome and any feedback given a condemnation of the learner.

What if, instead, we made failure part of our learning design and turned it into a positive step in the learning journey?

Learning through trial and error

Think about learning to walk for the first time. We learn this through trial and error. There isn’t a set of learning materials for us to read through, no video explaining step by step what to do. We try, we fall down. We give it another go, we fall down again. But with each failure, we are learning, and eventually, we can walk. There is no parent standing there telling us off for failing, there is no shame or embarrassment for not having made it to the other side of the room. Why as adults should learning be any different?

Using questions to learn

There is still too much digital education built using old methodologies, following a number of outdated approaches. This is why it is so exciting when someone breaks this mould and takes a different instructional approach.

Take Duolingo for example. Duolingo is a language learning app which teaches through assessment. Duolingo is not a new app, it has been around for a number of years now, but what is worth considering with Duolingo and other learning applications like it is the assessment-only, failure-as-learning approach it takes.

Within the app, you select the language you wish to learn and immediately upon entering the first lesson instead of theoretical content. that is prevalent in so much digital education, you are presented with a question.

Now if you have prior knowledge of the language, you may be able to correctly answer the question immediately and move on to additional and eventually more advanced questions. However, if you are like most learners seeing or hearing a sentence in another language for the first time you are unlikely to know the answer and may answer incorrectly. This is ok though, the app provides you with an understanding of what the correct answer was and moves you to another question. Later in the lesson, you get a chance to answer the question you got incorrect, again. With this approach, the learner continues through the lesson, retrying questions they previously got incorrect until they successfully answer all questions in the lesson.

Some learners may find that simply answering questions may not be enough for them to understand the concepts presented. Duolingo caters for these learners too, by allowing a learner to click a word or phrase within a question to find out the meaning, or by clicking on an audio icon to hear the spoken equivalent in the language they are learning. This allows for exploratory learning while still take a question-first approach.

Using our failures to succeed

We are actively engaged in the whole learning process because we must be. In traditional text and next-style digital education, it is easy to click through to the end (or skip the learning material entirely and hope you can pass the quiz at the end). It is much harder to zone out and disengage from the learning content when the entire lesson is an interactive assessment.

Each time a learner fails they pick up a new piece of information, trying different approaches, different responses, each time learning, if nothing else, what the answer is not. By the time the learner reaches the correct answer, there is a much greater likelihood that they will retain the knowledge, then having correctly guessed a multiple choice or true-false question.

Knowledge exploration

In life, if we come across a concept we don’t understand – a critical piece of knowledge we need for a work project for example – most often we go exploring to find the information we need. Whether this is a search of Google, visiting your organisation’s intranet or watching that helpful online video, we explore to learn and to gain knowledge.

If we take this same approach in question-based learning, instead of providing learners with pages of content followed by questions, we can provide learners with questions and the tools they need to go exploring to find the answers. This way learners become a bigger part of their learning journey and their personal explorations – which may differ entirely from other students – assist them to learn in a way that works for them.

By using a combination of question-based lessons, along with a set of tools for learners to further explore a topic, we can move away from failure having such negative connotations and instead welcome it as a step on the path to deeper learning.


Catherine Duncan

Catherine Duncan

Catherine is a learning technologies and digital education practitioner with over twelve years experience across a variety of industries. She enjoys using her technical, educational and creative knowledge to assist organisations in determining their technical and/or training requirements and assisting them in finding the optimum solution.

2 thoughts on “Allow yourself to fail, you might just learn something

  • Hey John, we can get together and celebrate our failures anytime, lol.
    Great post Catherine!
    I think the most difficult thing as an adult can be admitting defeat – ‘failure’. Of course it’s probably not really failure, it’s more likely just ‘not successful at this time’.
    I’ve seen many learners struggle with a course, drop out, and come back later and do really well.
    I guess we all learned to ride a bike by falling off quite a few times(!), which gave us the skills to develop our balance eh?
    I’m learning golf this year, and my forehand topspin is interfering terribly with learning a smooth golf swing.
    Hmmmm, I actually need to do some ‘un-learning’ now, lol. How ironic.

  • John Alan

    I celebrate my failures- that is the way I learn best! Thanks for this post Catherine.


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