Wreck it good

nasty equationThis week I graded an exceptionally well-written exam.  The student used exam-writing and study strategies that I’ve found to be effective in my own experience.  This got me reflecting on my time as a student and I remembered the one thing that helped me more than any other skill or strategy that I developed: wreck it good.

Proclaimed in the same spirit as “git’er done!” (and therefore exempt from the usual grammatical rules), “wreck it good” was my license to fail.  Not only that, it made failure an imperative, which turned out to be a very good thing.

Here’s the scenario: I was taking a course in numerical modeling as part of my doctorate at Penn State.  The course included assignments that required writing computer code to simulate a variety of natural systems and processes.  I’d had some experience with programming, but the programming environment was new to me, and the application was also new.  Coding can be frustrating and challenging.  From time to time, my code produced such bizarre results that I had to remind myself that the computer was doing what I told it to, and not manifesting malicious intent.

As stressful as the course was (my husband claims it took five years off my lifespan), I look back on it with only positive feelings as a result of having given myself permission to fail.  It started out as a matter of pride.  I didn’t want to ask for help with my code only to hear “Did you try [insert obvious course of action that didn’t occur to me]?”  I resolved instead that I would try everything I could think of and make a complete and utter disaster of my code if necessary—I would wreck it good.  Then I could ask for help with the confidence that either the computer was broken, or the task was impossible when viewed from every conceivable angle by a normal human being.  I was nothing if not thorough.

A strange thing happened on the way to wrecking it good… I actually began to have fun with troubleshooting my code.  There was no risk involved in failure, because I could ask for help at any time.  That meant troubleshooting was more about exploring possibilities than fixing problems… and oddly enough, despite my best efforts, I never did wreck it good enough to need my instructor’s help.  It was very empowering to find out over and over again that however ugly and impossible the problem looked initially, I could handle it.  Bring it on, partial differential equation… cause I’m going to wreck you good!

Wrecking it good isn’t just for computer programming.  It works great for doing battle with math problems, or for posing challenging study questions to diagnose knowledge gaps.  It makes sense to try to fail—it is a full frontal attack on your learning challenges, and they won’t stand a chance.

Categories: Learning strategies | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Wreck it good

  1. Another great post, Karla. During last week’s Google Hangout with Valerie Irvine she talked about the importance of taking risks and be willing to fail. I’ve been thinking about that since our conversation. I will have to add “wreck it good” to that advice.

    • Karla

      I think the important thing is to make it safe to fail. Students need to know that they have a support network in place so that if they do fail, they can learn from the experience rather than be penalized for failing. That doesn’t mean low stakes assessments necessarily. There is probably a balance to strike between giving opportunities to fail as part of a learning experience, and giving students the option to not bother making an effort.

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