Pre-Mortem: Preventing failure and looking forward to ensure success

Deirdre Dingman, DrPH
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The premortem is an activity used by companies or their coaches as a strategy to reduce the chances that a project will fail. I first heard about it while listening to psychologist Gary Klein on The Knowledge Project in August 2022 (Ep. #144). The premortem is a twist on preventing ‘bad’ outcomes in that it assumes the project has already failed. That’s right, as Dr. Klein presents it, he has a crystal ball and can see into the future. In that future, the project has failed – it’s true he says – he has seen it. Dr. Klein then takes his participants/trainees through a process where first individually and then collectively they brainstorm all the reasons the project failed. That is part one, and its done like a nominal group process so that all the problems are listed, and the main ones are highlighted. In part two, the participants again generate a list individually and collectively. This time, they find the most likely steps to prevent the adverse outcome. According to Dr. Klein, this activity is effective in reducing failure AND building a shared sense of responsibility for the success of the project.

The premortem can be used in the classroom even when a group project isn’t involved and with similar success. It’s true, I have done this! In this post, I provide two examples of using the premortem with students. And if you’re like me, you will start to see the many ways that you can apply this in your own classes.

At the beginning of each semester, instructors consider ways to set the tone for an engaged classroom (e.g., Ep. #41 of Faculty Focus Live). Many of us ask our students to consider the best and worst classroom experiences they’ve had, or what they think an instructor could do or bring to the classroom and what they, as students, could do or bring to the classroom to make it one of those ‘best’ experiences. The first time I used a premortem in class it was meant to do this. Specifically, I wanted to set the stage for a successful outcome with students in a two-semester course. This particular course is a requirement for the Public Health major. Students must receive a minimum passing grade of C in the first semester in order to progress to the second. If not, they must wait until the following fall to repeat the course. Thus, the stakes are pretty high.

On the first day--after I spoke to the students about the course and we did a few ice breakers to get to know each other--I explained that I put a lot of thought into how I teach the course and I care deeply about each student’s progress. I told them I knew the class was demanding and I wanted to do everything I could to help students succeed. But it doesn’t always work out. And just like Dr. Klein, I told my students I had a crystal ball that could see into the future. It was December 2022, and a student was not going to pass the course. I emphasized that the student was NOT passing and then asked them to first spend a few minutes writing down all the things that went wrong for this student. I told them to think broadly on causes, for example, the students actions or inactions, the instructors actions or inactions, and other life or contextual events. Once the students had time to write their thoughts, we went around the room (about 20 students), with each person stating the first item on their list, or the first item that had not already been stated. The white board was filled with responses such as did not come to class, did not turn work in on time, took too many courses, poor time management, instructor didn’t give clear instructions, had to work full time. We repeated the activity on what the student and instructor could do to keep the student from failing and closed the activity by highlighting the top 3 things students could do to ensure they would earn at least a 73 this semester (i.e., coming to class, asking for help, turning things in on time). I shared what I would do as well (i.e., preparing for class, providing rubrics and feedback and grading their work within days of submission).

My second use of a premortem was embedded in a case study and supported by a Poll Everywhere up vote activity. I created this activity after for a different course on the topic of people who use drugs. Before starting the activity, I got to know the students a bit and highlighted a few things about substance use, dependency, and addiction. The premortem began with a story about a person named Jackson. Jackson is a 30-year-old Black cisgender male. One week ago, Jackson was arrested for possessing 2 grams of heroin. He was released from jail this morning to await trial. A few hours ago, he died from an opioid overdose. 

After pausing for the story to sink in, I asked students, “how did we get here?” and told them to make a list of all the things that might have happened in this man’s life to get us to this point. Some additional prompting was given, for example: think immediately and distally, think about this persons actions and interactions with people, institutions, and society.  Students then wrote their reasons on a poll everywhere thread and upvoted the reasons that were most important. Students then made a list of ways we could prevent deaths from drug overdoses and upvoted the most important ideas. The details about the person in the case study can also be altered to see what different problems students might identify. Because this was the first time I tried this activity, I included a brief exit survey with the following questions.

  1. What do you think was accomplished by the activity we did today?
  2. What suggestions do you for how today’s activity could have been improved?
  3. Is there anything else about today’s activity or topic that you’d like to share?

I was pleased with both premortem activities and believe the activity itself can be adapted for use in any course and any topic. I am happy to brainstorm ideas for you classroom and can be reached at

[And, as always, the CAT is available for one-on-one consultations on this or any other learning activity you are planning for your Temple students. -Ed.]


Deirdre Dingman, DrPH, MPH, CHES is Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Chair of the Collegial Assembly of the Temple University College of Public Health.

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