Failing Safely: Increasing Students’ Resilience and Academic Confidence via Risk‐Taking in Formative Assessment

“Failing Safely: Increasing Theology and Religious Studies Students’ Resilience and Academic Confidence via Risk‐Taking in Formative Assessment”, Teaching Theology and Religion 21.2 (2018), 110-119, DOI: 10.1111/teth.12429

This paper is based on an assignment I undertook for the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice course in Exeter in 2017.  I had noticed that in the last few years the students arriving at university seemed increasingly risk-averse and increasingly less academically confident. Even very able students seemed to require closer guidance on tasks than before, and were less able to experiment with assignments. In my assignment, and in the paper, I explored some of the possible reasons for this and asked how experimenting with formative assignments might give students confidence to take more risks, as well as coming to understand assessment as non-utilitarian, not always directed to a particular mark or outcome.

Students increasingly appear anxious, risk‐averse, and worried about getting things “wrong.” They may appear to lack intellectual curiosity, and be unwilling to engage in independent study. This essay explores how teaching and assessment in theology and religious studies might help students learn to take intellectual risks, and increase their resilience. One approach is to encourage students to experiment and “fail safely,” to increase their confidence that they understand what is expected of them, and to help them begin to understand learning as more broadly formational, not always directed toward a grade. I suggest three strategies: more formative assessment; a stronger narrative about the purpose of formative assessment; and an appeal to values, virtue, and the cultivation of character. Via these approaches, students might be encouraged to understand assessment in less utilitarian terms and increase their resilience for a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, prepared both critically and dispositionally to thrive and contribute positively to society.