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What I learned as the worst student in the class

What I learned as the worst student in the class

When professors teach, they teach what they love. What they are experts in. What it is easy for them to learn. Thus, it is easy to forget what it is like to be the student who struggles in the classroom. In fact, many professors may never have had the experience of struggling to learn--they probably effortlessly got A’s or at least easily understood how to teach themselves a topic. How can they, then, sympathize with and, more importantly, effectively teach students who do not intuitively understand their subject matter?


Teachers frequently talk about moments in which they became students again and how much that made them better teachers. For me, there has been no better way to improve my teaching, specifically my teaching in the composition classroom, than to take up a subject at which I am abysmal. A year ago, I started indoor rock climbing as a serious hobby. As someone who has always been terrible at physical activities, this was an enormous challenge. (To put this in some perspective, I was always the last kid picked for sports teams in school and am generally viewed as klutzy by all my friends--I trip over curbs.)


I signed up for some group classes to learn the basics of climbing. However, I felt silly because I could not do basic exercises that seemed effortless for other people and it was embarrassing to fail so publicly. Moreover, it was disheartening to see people come to the gym for the first time and climb routes that I had tried over and over again for weeks and still failed to climb. Finally, I hired a personal coach. Not just because I knew lessons would help me but because I couldn’t see what I was doing wrong. My coach was wonderful - encouraging without false praise (that I could tell, anyway), enthusiastic even when I felt disheartened, and patient. As good as this was, though, it was not enough. I had to rethink my learning style and adapt it to my new situation.


Generate small goals.

I had developed a series of goals, such as learning enough technique to climb safely outside within six months to a year, but these goals ended up being much too difficult to work towards - I constantly felt overwhelmed by all I needed to learn. I needed much smaller goals. So, for example, I decided I would work on using my feet more efficiently. This in and of itself is not a small goal and I spent many weeks just on that goal (I anticipate many more). As most of us realize, for students that struggle, goal-setting and repetition is necessary. In the writing classroom, for example, no student is going to write a good paper if they only have a handful of chances to write a thesis statement during the semester--and yet this is often all we give them. Each semester, I have all of my students diagnose their writing weaknesses and generate a plan to improve them. However, I was beginning to think that I should emphasize more repetition in these plans. Repetition has been much maligned in pedagogy, probably because of its association with rote memorization, but repetition is necessary if one is struggling.


Learn and celebrate small incremental steps towards goals.

In my efforts to learn to rock climb, I was aware enough of my own shortcomings that I could be impressed at my own successes, such as the first time I really balanced on a small foothold, not just stood on a large one. However, I began to realize that many of my students who struggled probably would not have this awareness yet, especially those who were young and in composition classes. How could I give my students the sense that they were progressing tremendously even if their grades were not improving? How could I show them that suddenly learning to see that a paragraph had no thesis was an enormous step - and the first step to being able to write a thesis? I’ve always been steadfast about not grading based on effort and I still believe that, but I have started to consider adding an “improvement” metric to my grading rubric. A few years ago, I did have an “improvement from draft” metric, but I found it too time-consuming to grade in large numbers. My experience climbing, however, has made me return to this idea and search for other solutions to this problem.


Embrace failure.

Ultimately, nothing was more helpful for me than failing repeatedly. Academics choose to pursue subjects in which they do not fail very often. When I went climbing, I was failing spectacularly--and publicly--every hour of every day I was climbing. This is quite different from job market rejection or publication rejection--those can all be justified or explained away in one’s mind. I was forcing myself to do something that I knew would cause me to feel fear, failure, and frustration. The mental and physical discipline it took for me to fail repeatedly and try again was completely different from the kind of academic discipline I had developed over the years. This is perhaps the hardest lesson I want my students to learn. They have been taught that all failure is something to be ashamed of and something to be avoided. Thus, I have decided that one entire assignment in my next writing class will be about writing failures, since all good writing entails drafts and revisions. The students will save their failed writing attempts and explain what they have learned from them. Focusing entirely on those drafts and revisions and why precisely they decided to delete paragraphs or change introductions will, I hope, make students feel more comfortable with this concept.


Write a new personal narrative.

For me, one of the most empowering outcomes of my year of climbing has been the new narrative I can tell about myself. I am no longer  “Adrianne: scholar, book lover, pianist, and Wikipedian”. I am now “Adrianne: scholar, book lover, pianist, Wikipedian, and rock climber”. This was brought home most vividly to me one day when I was climbing outdoors here in Los Angeles and people on the beach were marveling at those of us climbing. Suddenly I realized, I used to be the person saying how crazy or impossible such feats were and now I was the one doing them. I had radically switched subject positions in a way I did not think possible for myself. That, I realized, is what I want my students to experience - that radical switch and growth. It is an enormous goal and I would love to hear how others work at achieving it with their students.



In every lecture I give, I end with the Toffler quote about the most important literacy of the 21st century being the ability to "learn, unlearn, relearn."   From now on, I'll include a url to your beautiful blog post so people can read a stunning example of how, as  a teacher, one can put oneself in a position of "unlearning" in order to be not just a far better teacher but also a far better human being.  Your humility, candor, and curiosity blow me a way---and inspire me.  I'll be talking about unlearning tomorrow morning on a  TV show broadcast all over Asia and I will make sure to have this url with me for the producer.   Thank you!


Thank you so much! I've certainly much from your own experimental attitudes and they inspire me. 



This is beautiful and inspiring! I'm going to share this with my teacher friends and my students! : )

Best Wishes,



thanks for sharing those wonderful thoughts. From my experience as an instructor, helping students to learn and celebrate small incremental steps were indeed rewarding. The idea of "improvement' metrics is very interesting. I look forward to hearing more on that if you have any new thoughts. 



Wonderful to re-read this essay a year later. Still inspiring, even more so, now. We can all only hope to live life with the same passion and humility. "Embrace failure" indeed. Yes! Yes, this. Thanks Adrianne!


It has been really touching to see this blog making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and email listservs. It perfectly encapsulates Adrianne's personality and voice, which makes it (in my opinion) even harder to read at the moment. I'm glad others will have the opportunity to read it -- and know a bit about her -- in the future. Thanks for commenting, Michael.