March 24, 2021

BERNSTEIN | Cornell Should Allow Students to Fail

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Cornell doesn’t let its students fail, but it should. I don’t mean to suggest that we pull out any security blankets or safety nets that would otherwise protect us from walking away with an F —  I don’t think those exist here. But we’ve all been in libraries during a big prelim week, where the tension is palpable and the stress is dripping down the walls, all because we as students are terrified of failing.

Things like “If you try your best, that’s good enough” or “You’re not who your grade says you are” feel almost cliché to say, but reality doesn’t actually support these claims; like it or not, our grades significantly impact our ability to explore opportunities. As such, we’re punished for failing. But I argue a grade should reflect how much one learns, and we should be allowed to make mistakes and mess up without punishment so long as we’re trying, and so long as we’re learning.

My first class at Cornell was a First-Year Writing Seminar at 8:40 a.m. that I intended on dropping. It was called MEDVL 1101: History of the English Language, and while the class’ title seemed cool, waking up early and reading Old English did not. But when the teacher, Ryan Lawrence grad, announced that all of our essays would be graded on only two criteria — if it met the required length and if it was turned in on time — I decided to stick around. I thought maybe the class would be easy, and maybe I’d learn a thing or two.

Ryan reads over, reviews, and comments on all of his students’ papers just like anyone else, but he grades on completion rather than performance. While he has opinions on papers and will talk about them with his students and let them know what they’ve done well or poorly, if you completed the assignment, you get an A. 

“I grade this way because I want students to have the freedom to take risks, to experiment with what writing is and how to write, and not be afraid to fail. And to give space to fail without failing a course,” he says. Ryan’s students aren’t punished for making mistakes or for sticking their neck out. They could try something that doesn’t work, but they’ll learn their lesson, and they won’t fail for trying.

Some might think that without performance-based grades, it would be difficult to keep students engaged or put in any effort at all. But Ryan says that this hasn’t been his experience. “Students try even harder, because they know it’s up to them. If you don’t try in my course, I’m not going to punish you for it. And they own up to the responsibility of their own academic work.”

From my experience in his class, I can say that my peers and I actually participated and tried. We wrote full essays, had active discussions and completed readings. There were times when I slacked off a little bit, as there admittedly are for all of my classes. A big difference, though, is that I wasn’t scared or stressed about potential slacking. Because so long as I got my work done, I knew my grade would be fine.

Ryan’s philosophy is effective because in his class, completion is synonymous with learning. “I think the papers force students to learn. I do completion grades, but I design papers that, if you just turn something in, you will have learned something.”

Sometimes, the papers in our class had weird and specific prompts. For example, we had an essay where we couldn’t use the letter “E”, nor could we use “it”, “this”, or “that”. The point was to practice writing with constraint, and the lessons I learned still impact my writing now — and hopefully I don’t have too many antecedent-less demonstratives in this column. 

We also wrote a 12 to15 page research paper in Ryan’s class. I’d never written such a long paper before, and honestly I don’t think my finished product was that special. Truthfully, I didn’t really care too much. I had nevertheless learned skills for writing long papers that I still use now for other classes. This is the idea of Ryan’s assignments; “They don’t have to be great, but the fact that you wrote 15 pages will make you a better writer.”

Ryan’s class forces his students to learn, and it doesn’t care if they make mistakes or if they slack off a little bit every so often. It allows kids to fail without fear. The result is a stress-less class where students actually learn. It sounds almost unreal, but shouldn’t that be the goal of every class on campus? Professors say all the time that their students’ well-being is the number one priority, but how often do they really mean it?

It may seem difficult to apply this philosophy to a STEM class, where there are certain correct answers, or really to anything other than a writing class. But it’s not. Give students multiple tries to get questions right on quizzes or tests, provide lots of opportunities for points so that a couple mistakes don’t drag us down, walk students through problems and homework assignments, and foster a class culture more concerned with learning than grades.

Cornell’s job as a university is not primarily to give grades — its job is to help students grow and learn. Cornell students are supposed to be curious risk-takers who are unafraid of the unknown. Sometimes, though, when people take risks, they fail. That’s okay. Cornell shouldn’t punish them for failing, but celebrate them for learning.

Daniel Bernstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs every other Monday this semester.