No Wrong Answers

I have been a Teaching Assistant for the Food Microbiology Lab Course for the past two years (one year at NC State and one here at VT). I always assumed that the class was “hands-on”, “real world”, and “thought-provoking”, but with what I have learned this year in Contemporary Pedagogy, I realized that I wrong. Lab exercises provide instruction for students to follow and complete the work but don’t ask students to question the process behind it or innovate. The labs all relate to a specific microorganism that is isolated and grown on a nutrient agar plate. Students come back to observe these plates and record the results. Many have become so focused on the plates and worry when they don’t get the bacteria to grow as they need to. They chalk it up to failure immediately and do not consider why “X” organism may have not grown as well as it should have.

Seth Godin’s TedxYouth Talk had a part where he talked about an activity he did with people where he brought in a bunch of blocks and asked people to take four and form whatever word, sequence, acronym, etc. with them. He stated that people hated this activity because there was no one right answer. I love this statement because it means that everyone’s interpretations of what they have are different. In addition, students are “collecting” the information on the microorganism, but are not “connecting” the results to other areas. Relating this back to the class, something I’ve included in my Teaching Philosophy is:

“For students’ laboratory activities, I aim to challenge students to critically analyze their data, make conclusions, and discuss their work. There are times with lab where they do not work out as intended, and these are moments where students are asked about what could be done differently next time. It is valuable for students to realize that experiments fail and that learning from these mistakes is what matters.”

I believe that failure is okay. Innovation occurs in the fields sometimes due to failure. Yes, Food Science and Food Microbiology may be characterized as a “conservative” field due to its reproducibility, according to Edelstein’s article, but these changes through tinkering, transforming, and revising what is already there, is what leads to innovative ways of solving problems. Creativity and innovation can be applied with the help of questioning what is already out there. We can learn alongside and teach our students this intellectual process. Rather than making labs like a recipe that can be followed by every student (with hopes of reproducibility), varying and differing what is done can be beneficial.


Join the Conversation


  1. I had the same experience while teaching general chemistry lab. We tell them exactly how to complete an experiment and even the type of results they should see. We also vet the process before they do the lab and tell them where mistakes are in the lab manual. In these lab classes, students are more worried about the fact that they had a low product yield rather than considering why there is low yield. This is not at all what a real chemistry lab is like. You have to develop your own experiment. Now that you have pointed this out, I will also be ensuring that my future students critically analyze rather than just do.


  2. Love that you are looking for ways to bring in creativity and problem solving. The learning process is definitely important and that is often where students are given opportunities for innovation. Sounds like students will be much more engaged with your labs in the future!


  3. I like your take on this, as an engineer I can relate. A lot of the PBL we did was cook book, I think it is a really neat idea to let the students come up with topic. While it might be harder to grade I would think they would put forth more effort and have more accountability considering they picked the topic.


    1. I agree. I think as educators, we often get lost in the “how much work would this be to grade”. We are focused on how we structure our classes to be “easy and simple” for grading instead of attempting to have content that may be harder to grade, but be more beneficial to the class.


  4. Nice point! I have recently seen some successful professors publishing a CV of failures as well as a (common) CV on their websites. This new kind of CV reminds their audience that failure is entangled with success– what we all know but forget quite often. Maybe accepting a well-discussed report on a failed experiment in your class would mitigate the distress of students in the future.


    1. Thank you for sharing, Negin. I have never heard of the CV failures before but I love it. Like you said, these are often implicated with each other.
      And that well-discussed report is something I am working with the current instructor of my class to do. Results are one thing but your “discussion”, or how you interpret these results is just, if not more important.


  5. I like the line “Innovation occurs in the fields sometimes due to failure.” I agree with you. I have got to know from two of my pedagogy classes there are so may research on improving learning. We have to use them for the benefit of the students, without them being yet another research.


  6. Hi! I also really like your take on acknowledging the importance and more importantly the value of failure on part of students. Same here! This also helps us assess students’ works based on their efforts in doing their assignments or whatever. The most important thing, I notice now, is to approach and give more importance to students’ efforts during the process. Thanks for your post, that is so crucial!


  7. I gravitated to that section of the homework over the weekend. I wonder if everyone needs a cookbook when it comes to the world around them. I then thought of the people who cook without a cookbook or work without an instruction manual. I probably can count that number of people on one hand. Yet, I do not think we are being trained to be on the assembly line but I think that most people want to follow the manual for the easiest path. Is it human nature? I enjoyed the post.


    1. Hi John. Great point. There may a dependency as humans to want that manual, recipe, or cookbook. I think that these elements are important, but it becomes about following instructions at that point. I think that in a classroom setting, we can adjust our laboratory manuals to include more than a set of instructions such as elements that require our students to synthesize concepts of what they’ve learned


  8. I entirely agree with your idea. I think it is really important to encourage students to give it a try even though they may fail, because many of them might be afraid of failing, never begin. Thank you for sharing!


  9. I love how you emphasize the importance of failure. Failure is a much more common occurrence in the field of research than success. Yet, no one talks about the failed attempts, no one documents them (which would probably have saved work for others who are going to do similar work in future). I think it is really important to instill in students that experiments fail, everything always doesn’t work first time and we need to really look deeply at the failed attempts to make way for the success.


  10. Minh,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Your analogy of Food Microbiology labs to recipe-style cooking is spot on and your breakdown of why it’s problematic is enlightening. If we’re not looking for reproducible industrial-style work, then why is this style the norm in so many university labs?


  11. Great post on how this class influenced your point of view and how you as a future professor can foster creativity in future students more effective. I believe as we learned in an old school fixed frame, the first step is to change our point of view as a teacher like you did.
    Thank you for your post.


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