Are Students Really Learning from Failure? Paper Suggests Engineering Programs Can Do More

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) hosted its annual Demo Day to showcase six startups Sept. 6, 2019 at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo. Photo by Joe Johnston/University Photographer/Cal Poly 9-6-19

On a flight to a Washington, D.C., innovator conference, Tom Katona began thinking about Cal Poly student startups that haven’t succeeded.

Some of the young entrepreneurs, he knew, were able to adapt after their ventures closed,  and many even expressed how much the valuable learning experience had prepared them for their next endeavors. But others, he said, simply fell off the entrepreneurial radar.

“We sort of take it for granted that if you’re going to fail, you’re going to learn from it,” said Katona, assistant professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who works both in the Biomedical Engineering Department and the Orfalea  College of Business. “Some may not, however.  Closuring an entrepreneurial venture is personally challenging and for some it could potentially cause them to not want to take risks again.”

A recently published paper that resulted from that flight explores whether engineering educators are actually teaching students to learn from failure – or if it’s just talk.

Tom Katona

“We talk about learning from failure all the time,” Katona said. “The question is: What are we really doing for our students to have that effect?”

After discussing the topic with peers at the VentureWell Conference, Katona began researching the topic with Sarah Zappe, from Penn State University, and Joe Tranquillo, from Bucknell University. Their paper, “A Systemic Review of Student Entrepreneurial Failure in Engineering Education,” was published for the 12th American Society for Engineering Education conference.

For all the talk of failure’s lessons, the paper concludes that there’s little research to show that learning from failure – particularly when the stakes are high — is actually being incorporated into engineering curriculum, .

“This suggests a need that student entrepreneurial failure should be studied in the engineering entrepreneurship context,” the paper concludes.

The team of researchers could not find a body of literature that focused on best practices and research related to how to help students learn from failure. The need to learn from failure is often mentioned. How to do it is not.

“We don’t always learn from failure,” Katona said. “We have to be intentional about helping people learn how to do that, and admittedly, that’s difficult.”

With a National Science Foundation grant, the team now plans to look into the subject further. They are beginning to interview students whose startups have failed as a first step toward the process. With that information, Katona hopes educators will be better able to prepare students even before a failure – and provide support systems after one.

While there isn’t a consensus on the definition of failure in the academic literature – and there’s a spectrum of failure — Katona and his team chose to specifically look at students who started an entrepreneurial venture and pursued it for at least six months, received some amount of funding or grant, and saw that venture cease to operate.

“We’re really looking for people who would have gotten their venture to a point where it was heavily tied to their identity,” said Katona, a veteran of several startups.

As research on failure continues, Katona hopes the phrase “You can learn from your failures” won’t just be a platitude.

“This is something we can and should be a lot more intentional about in the classroom because of its potential to meaningfully benefit out students in various facets of their live and careers as they move forward.”


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