Universities must allow "constructive failure"

Universities must allow "constructive failure"

by Simon Gifford -
Number of replies: 0

Lino Guzzella

At the Times Higher Education World Summit,  heads of leading European and Asian universities have suggested that Universities must create an educational environment where “constructive failure” can flourish if they are to foster a culture of innovation,

Lino Guzzella, president of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich, said that failure is more important than success “because in success you usually learn very little but in failure you learn a lot”.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Singapore, Professor Guzzella said that ETH Zurich has “a rich tradition of project-based learning” but has recently combined this with an approach of “constructive failure”.

“We try to formalise this process by bringing students in a friendly environment, in a safe environment, to the breaking point where they fail. And we provide an environment where they can learn from their failure and really grow,” he said, adding that this approach allows students to develop both technical and personal skills.

For example, ETH Zurich brings students across all disciplines together for a week ahead of each semester to work on team projects.  

“In a week-long setting, in groups of 20, they develop crazy ideas. Not all of these ideas are viable or very useful, but that’s not the point. The point is that they learn how to interact in a diverse environment, they learn how to solve problems where there is no concrete solution,” he said, during a panel discussion on the role of research universities in creating societal impact.

“If you teach your students how to solve research problems which have no answer, you teach them how to solve the common problems of the world.”

Professor Guzzella added that it was important that such programmes start at undergraduate level.

Eng Chye Tan, president of the National University of Singapore, said that his institution was also trying to embed “constructive failure” into its educational programmes.

“We hear too much about success but it is true that students learn the most from failure. And if you can [foster this] through an experience, all the better,” he said during the same session.

Professor Tan said that NUS creates this environment by sending hundreds of students abroad each year to locations including Silicon Valley and Shanghai, where they work at start-ups during the day and study at partner universities in the evening.

He said that one student recently went to Israel through this programme and worked at a company that “collapsed” during his internship.

“If you were working after graduation in such a company you would have lost a job. But being a student on an attachment, actually you experience the tribulations of success and failure and that’s extremely valuable,” he said.

Another way of of allowing constructive failure is through the use of simulations (refer Mashauri simulations ), whereby students are given challenges and need to take decisions - and then get immediate feedback. Normally they are then able to repeat the exercise and see the impact of different decisions.

Contact me at if you would like to find out more about these simulations.