Part 9: Spring 2019 Labs

172 “A dark and learny night” – 04.12.2019

“It was a dark and learny night”  alludes to the infamous opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford and, later, Snoopy’s enduring attempts at authorship. Today, the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest inspires participants to “write an atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel.” Similarly, assigning and celebrating failure (what not to do) can be equally, if not more, valuable in helping students identify underlying systems, patterns, and conclusions. In the April 12, 2019 Active Teaching Lab, 11 participants explored how to structure and facilitate exploration of bad models to give students constructive takeaways. Attendees posed examples and considerations for designing these assignments for reflection and success.


  • Introduce students to the idea of bad models by providing one for them to critique. Collect their observations and suggestions on the board or a shared document to make the vastness of their knowledge apparent to them.
  • Help students discover the advantages and limitations of models. Models provide a starting place when they might otherwise not know where to begin and serve as shortcuts to success by helping them learn from others’ experiences. On the other hand, models tend to confine creativity to the characteristics represented in the model provided. Let students weigh when models may and may not be beneficial in their learning.
  • Encourage students to plan their bad models by first mapping possible missteps and providing a rationale for why that direction may not be the ideal. Knowing the why behind their decisions to do or not do something deepens students’ understanding of the concept or system under review.
  • Connect to failure in video games. James Paul Gee writes, “The role of failure is very different in video games than it is in school. In good games, the price of failure is lowered – when players fail, they can, for example, start over a their last saved game. Furthermore, failure – for example, failure to kill a boss – is often seen as a way to learn the underlying pattern and eventually to win. The features of failure in games allow players to take risks and try out hypotheses that might be too costly in places where the cost of failure is higher, or where no learning stems from failure.”

For more information on embracing mistakes, failures, and bad models, visit the session’s activity sheet.


The Active Teaching Lab is a Faculty Engagement program with sessions held on Thursdays from 1:00-2:00pm and Fridays from 8:30-9:45am in the Middleton Building (1305 Linden Dr.), room 120. Check out upcoming Labs or read the recaps from past Labs. We build interdisciplinary conversations that are more emergent than a presenter and more dynamic than a panel — a conversation with colleagues sharing challenges, solutions, and experiments on topics selected by a variety of stakeholders.

Sign up for regular Lab announcements by sending an email to


Active Teaching Lab eJournal Copyright © 2016 by DoIT Academic Technology and the UW-Madison Teaching Academy; Jennifer Hornbaker; John Martin; Julie Johnson; Karin Spader; Margaret Merrill; Margaret Murphy; and Jeffrey Thomas. All Rights Reserved.

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