3 Ways to Embrace Constructive Failure in your E-Learning

I was chatting with an e-learning designer about her struggles to get her boss to let her design something other than click-and-read e-learning. She summarized her challenge like this:

“I work in a highly regulated, high-accountability environment. We design e-learning that makes it as easy as possible for people to pass the quiz. So how can I convince my boss to let me do something more creative or performance-oriented when passing the quiz is all anyone cares about—and failure is never an option?”

Sound familiar?

When it comes to learning topics with a strong performance component—things like proper hand-washing technique or customer service skills, for instance—merely forcing learners to pass a quiz isn’t enough. What learners need are opportunities to fail. Why fail? Because failure is both an unavoidable and powerful part of the learning process.

When I say “failure,” I'm not talking about destructive failure that erodes someone’s self-confidence or leads to career stagnation. I’m talking about the kind of failure that opens up opportunities for further instruction and lays the foundation for learning.

So how do you talk to your boss about the positive aspects of failure when you’re in an environment that characterizes all failure as inherently bad? Here’s some food for thought.

Position Constructive Failure as a Good Way to Manage Risk

People shy away from taking risks because failure is a possible outcome. But avoiding risk entirely isn’t realistic, nor does it foster the kinds of behaviors that spur individual or organizational growth.

A more sustainable approach is to manage risk—a task where e-learning shines. That’s because e-learning designed with performance in mind encourages folks to explore and take risks in a predictable environment where there is less accountability. It gives people a safe place to practice applying their skills in a way that’s minimally destructive and less public, while giving an opportunity to intervene with some constructive support in the form of contextual feedback that tells people what they did well and where they need to improve.

In short, e-learning that embraces a bit of “safe” failure gives your organization a smart way to help learners identify their mistakes and correct them in training, before they surface on the job.

Talk About Learning As a Process

Some organizations act as though learning is an event—something to be controlled in order to achieve the successful outcome of a passing score. But passing a quiz may only be a measure of someone’s ability to take a test, not necessarily of their ability to perform a critical task.

If your organization is obsessed with quiz scores, start talking about learning as a dynamic process made more complex by the fact that it’s both highly iterative and highly individual. In other words, learning and growth happen when we give people safe environments to practice—which generally consists of an attempt, (potentially) failure, feedback, and then trying again.

Address Your Own Failure Fears

No one enjoys the prospect of failure—even “constructive” failure—including e-learning designers! But to really embrace learning as a process you need to face and overcome your own fear of e-learning failure. Here are some practical tips for doing just that.

  • Set expectations and provide clear, achievable objectives. Afraid that learners aren’t motivated to take your course? People are more engaged and motivated when you demonstrate the relevance of training. Show them why they should care about the course right from the start. Explain what it is they’ll learn and how this new knowledge or skill will make them a better version of themselves. Present the objectives in a way that speaks to learners and make sure each one can be achieved within the technical confines of e-learning.
  • Write focused, relevant, and compelling content. One common design fear is that learners will simply tune out because the content you’re sharing is dull. But just because the content is boring doesn’t mean you can’t do things to make it more engaging.

    For starters, focus on keeping your content concise, relevant, and compelling. Transform passive reading into interactive exercises or illustrate the significance behind dull policies and procedures with a real-life story.

    For more great ideas for avoiding boring training, check out this article 3 Ways to Avoid Designing Boring Compliance Training.
  • Put more trust in learners. Our own fear of design failure often manifests itself in the form of e-learning courses full of features like locked-down navigation, narrated on-screen text, or a 100 percent passing score, all in place to keep people from “cheating” or “skipping ahead” or to make sure they “get all of the information.”

    Why so much distrust of learners? Sometimes it’s part of your organization’s culture, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless to nudge the conversation in a new and more trusting direction. 

    Some ideas for putting a little more trust in learners include:
  1. Giving learners the option to test out of topics—or to skip the quiz altogether if it’s not a mission-critical training topic.
  2. Swapping out passive lecture and reading for more challenging decision-making scenarios.
  3. If you’re creating a course that doesn’t have a lot of performance expectations tied to it, demonstrating respect for their time and intelligence by keeping content short and easy to digest.
  • Finally, be clear on when people are being scored vs. when they’re practicing. Afraid your learners are confused about your expectations? Nothing erodes the circle of e-learning trust faster than an e-learning bait and switch. Take pains to clearly communicate which activities are for practice and which are for a grade. 

    For some more targeted pointers on designing compelling interactions, check out this handy (and free) eBook.

Ready to Learn More?

Failure is only a true fail when you don’t learn and grow from it. So if you’re continuously building your e-learning skills, look no further than E-Learning Heroes for help. Start by sinking your teeth into these related articles:

And if you’re looking for some more ideas or guidance from fellow designers, you'll find a lively network of helpful peers to learn from in our Building Better Courses forum.

How are you helping your organization embrace constructive failure? Share your experiences in the comments below. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

Maryanne Henderson
Maryanne Henderson
Kate Niblett
Trina Rimmer
Raquel Torrent
David Glow