Life Lessons from the Library: Failure Is an Option

As hard as we try in the library to provide our students with the assistance they need to pass their courses, sometimes they fail. They are obviously devastated, and we’re pretty sad about it as well. It’s hard to see someone you’ve gotten to know as a person over fourteen weeks so desolate. 

Still, in many cases, we suspected trouble in the course, even when the students were still optimistic. Why?

  • Students weren’t asking their instructors for help when they didn’t understand something.
  • They were missing classes or not doing assignments.
  • They were procrastinating.
  • Family and job responsibilities interfered with their academic progress.

But many of these are simply symptoms, not the underlying problem. I think a main cause of failure is simply not learning from mistakes and, instead,doing the same thing over and over, maybe just more of it.

Recently, I talked with a student who had made a poor grade on a paper. She was lamenting the  amount of time spent on it: “weeks and weeks of effort when I could have been working on something else.” I took a glance at the instructor’s comments: Poor organization, lack of statement of main ideas, and no transitions. Ironically, I had looked at an essay for this same student earlier in the semester. My comments: poor organization, no statement of main ideas, and no transitions. 

The student had spent little time analyzing her mistakes and finding ways to improve her paper. Instead, she simply increased the time spent on each one. The problem with that is spending more time doing the wrong thing only results in more of the wrong thing. Sadly, she was now angry at her instructor for not respecting the amount of time she put in on the paper, and was not amenable to any direction on actually improving her work.

Of course, this is not a problem simply for students. We see it in our colleagues, our friends, and, if we’re honest, ourselves. Correcting a colleague doesn’t get the results we want,so we correct more. A fad diet doesn’t help us lose weight, so we find another fad diet. A relationship fails because we can’t accept our partner’s eccentricities, so we start criticizing those eccentricities earlier in the next one.

Looking for and correcting weaknesses is a basic step in most problem-solving techniques taught in classes. Then why is it so hard for us to apply that step to our own lives? 

It’s a question I don’t have the answer to. But I realize that if we stopped denying our fallibility and instead concentrated on fixing mistakes, we’d be much more effective. And I think much happier as well.



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