King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership Ronald Heifetz believes that students can learn more from their own experiences, and that experiential teaching methods in general provide deeper educational benefits than “prepared cases at a distance from students’ experience.”

Photo by Tom Fitzsimmons

Campus & Community

Getting the word out on learning from experience — and failure

6 min read

Teaching method encourages students to share what didn’t work, and to figure out how to do it differently and better

Ronald Heifetz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership and King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), uses experiential teaching methods like student case analysis — in which students develop and collaboratively analyze cases drawn from their own work experiences of failure — to promote deeper engagement and stronger retention of leadership concepts.

Teaching leading as practice in “Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change” and “Leadership from the Inside Out: The Personal Capacity to Lead and Stay Alive” requires not only learning a complex conceptual framework, according to Heifetz, but also skills, temperament, and values. He believes that analyzing personal experiences, far more than probing “case-method” examples, has several advantages. The process meets students at their learning frontier because they self-select salient cases; makes the lessons come alive in an enduring way; strengthens the emotional capacity for reflective practice; and increases the likelihood that knowledge learned in the classroom will transfer into behavior and action.

Heifetz’s practice was shared with more than 10,000 active Harvard instructors in February via Into Practice, a biweekly e-letter introduced in 2015 by the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) and written by members of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) team. The VPAL office, led by Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations Peter Bol, is charged with ensuring Harvard’s sustained leadership in learning and teaching innovation, and overseeing the University-wide activities of HarvardX, HILT, and the VPAL Research Group.

Into Practice was inspired by and scaled from a 2012 HILT grant project awarded to the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSD). The e-letter highlights the pedagogical practices of individual faculty members and delivers timely, evidence-based tips and additional resources that might influence other instructors’ teaching practice that very day or in a future semester.

Heifetz’s profile underscored that teaching practice can be enhanced by using specific, illustrative cases that lead to generalizable concepts. He believes that students can learn more from their own experiences. “Rather than learning with prepared cases at a distance from students’ experience,” he said, “they are learning from their own and each other’s cases. Many students return years later and say, ‘I think about this every day.’”

The early semester issue of Into Practice also provided some advice for instructors:

  • Don’t be afraid to focus on failure. Students select a failure rather than a success story because Heifetz believes that the exercise desensitizes them to failure itself (a common experience in leadership practice), teaches them to take corrective action more quickly and to persevere, and increases their learning retention: “People lose sleep from failure because those experiences have high emotional valence. The odds go way up that they will carry those lessons forward.”
  • Create multiple settings for case analysis. Heifetz divides his class of 112 students into consultation groups of eight that meet weekly for 75 minutes, and each student gets a turn to present and analyze his or her case. They then do a written analysis of both that week’s case and the group’s consultation. In addition, one case is randomly chosen each week for discussion in the large class, and early in the term Heifetz models the analysis. Students also write final papers analyzing their own cases with the aim of generating new diagnostic and action options.
  • Provide a framework for analysis, and think out loud with students as you apply the framework, even when you cannot break open the case. Give students permission to learn publicly, to test and refine a framework as they learn how to think through a variety of cases, discover any limits to the approach, and push conceptual frontiers. Encourage the habit of refining the frameworks they use that as a life practice.
  • Go for options, not conclusions. Resist the temptation to push for prescriptions on the cases. Instead, set the bar at generating new options. How might the student have engaged in a more robust diagnostic search process? Framed, sequenced, or paced issues differently? Searched for allies within opposing constituencies?
  • Be prepared for emotions. When students analyze their failures, they may feel embarrassed, sad, or angry. That’s appropriate, of course. Students are resilient, Heifetz says, and most of the time an instructor just needs to listen, ask clarifying questions, and show empathy. As students analyze options they had not considered, they not only carry away lessons, but also more readily and fully move on.
  • Use teaching assistants. Heifetz relies heavily on them, meeting as a team before and after each class, to track each student and ensure support for his or her analytical and sometimes emotional work. Rarely do students need additional support in managing stress, but when they do, the University’s programs for students (such as the Bureau of Study Counsel) have been excellent and readily available.

The early semester issue included relevant educational research. HKS lecturer Tim O’Brien’s doctoral dissertation last year compared the leadership courses at HKS and Harvard Business School (HBS), analyzing the effectiveness of learning leadership through personal experiences, and a text-analysis study on the broad health benefits of regularly writing about important personal experiences.

All issues of Into Practice conclude with links to relevant campus resources illuminating tip sheets, peer examples, and archived presentations. This issue referenced case method approaches and resources from the GSD, HBS’ Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning, Harvard Law School’s Case Studies Blog, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Case-Based Teaching and Learning Center, as well as best practices in teaching team management from HKS’ Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) Initiative.

All 32 issues of Into Practice, as well as cited research and resources, are available at and at