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Learning from Failure: Lessons from Academic Development Leaders

Thursday 4 July: Conference day two, 11:00am – 11:30am parallel session



Room 8 – 303 B09 Sem



Dr Julie Timmermans
University of Otago, New Zealand

Dr Kathryn Sutherland
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand



Often, failures are hidden; however, we see challenges as opportunities for learning and growth. In this session, we share insights from a study in which we collect and analyse stories of retired academic developers’ perceived failures in academic development work. Our deep interest is in the process of learning from failure, and this project seeks to contribute to both literature and practice by proposing a preliminary grounded theory of how academic developers learn from failure. We suggest that doing so can shed light on how we can think, what we can do, and how we might be in order to learn from experiences of failure.

We draw on wisdom and experiences of colleagues from across six continents through semi-structured interviews to gain expansive insight into a range of possible perceived sources of, interpretations of, and ways of learning from failure. Data collection and analysis methods are informed by Kegan’s (1982) Constructive-Developmental Theory of Meaning-Making, as well as the Threshold Concepts Framework (Meyer & Land, 2003, 2005) which allow us to identify shifts in cognition, affect, and identity that result from grasping any transformative insights related to failure. Our understanding of failure is also informed by Brown’s (2015) grounded theory of “how we rise from our falls, overcome our mistakes, and face hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness into our lives” (p. 37).

Our intent in sharing insights from these stories is that we may begin to move away from the individualisation and privatisation of anxiety and feelings of failure (Gill, 2010). Recent research by Huang, et al. (2018) reveals that sharing our stories of failure may be one of the simplest ways to “mitigate malicious envy”, making us seem more human in the eyes of others, thereby connecting us further to our colleagues.



Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong: The reckoning. The rumble. The revolution. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
Gill, R. (2010). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Ryan-Flood & R. Gill (Eds.), Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Huang, K., Brooks, A. W., Buell, R. W., Hall, B., & Huang, L. (2018). Mitigating malicious envy: Why successful individuals should reveal their failures. Harvard Business Review, Working paper 18-080. Retrieved from
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning: Improving student learning theory and practice – 10 years on (pp. 412-424). Oxford, UK: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373-388.


Presentation topic

Academics – Academic Development

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