Failure is an Option if You Want to Succeed
March 30th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
What does it mean to be truly successful as a college student? Does it mean that you have earned the highest grades, completed every assignment with ease, and never received negative feedback from your instructors? It is unlikely that you will ever meet all of these conditions because the process of learning is evolutionary. And yet success is the measure that students often aim for, believing that everything they do must be done to perfection. Suppose I tell you it is okay not to be completely successful with every academic endeavor, and that you need to experience failure along the way if you truly want to learn how to succeed?
A blog post by education writer Liz Dwyer recently caught my attention, Want Students to Succeed? Let Them Fail. Dwyer believes that “the need to succeed whatever the cost permeates our society, and schools are no exception;” however, “new research in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology concludes that kids might perform better in school if teachers and parents sent the message that failing is a normal part of learning.” As I read this, I wondered if educators could embrace the use of reverse psychology and, more importantly, would they encourage students to change their long-held perspectives.
The research mentioned in Dwyer’s post comes from a study by French scholars and one of the researchers, Frederique Autin of the University of Poitiers, stated that they “focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority." The study concluded that "by being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material.” I understand this perspective as I’ve had many students who experienced such an overwhelming sense of panic over the possibility of failing an assignment that they either missed the deadline or did not submit the assignment to avoid the situation entirely.
A Perspective of Failure by JK Rowling
JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, spoke passionately about failure and the benefits that are associated with failure in a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University. The following video is an excerpt from her speech. (You can also view the entire speech through the TED website)
Rowling emphasizes that failure is not fun but it can provide you with an opportunity to strip away unessential characteristics and qualities. In other words, through failure you can find out who you really are, and in her case what she discovered was a strong will and self-discipline. Rowling also believes that she emerged stronger and wiser because of the “failure” she faced. She also states that some form of failure in life is inevitable.
Failing as a Student
Students that are just beginning their academic program are often at the greatest risk for experiencing failure and it may be due to a change in expectations once they became college students. In an Education Week blog post titled The Benefits of Failure, educator Peter DeWitt indicates that students “have spent years in their formative schooling where they had an adult who catered to their every need,” and “if they began to fail there was an adult, whether a parent or teacher, ready to intervene in an effort to help get them back on the right track.” I’m not certain that all students (or educators) would agree completely with this view; however, I understand this point because it aligns with the different theories about educating children and educating adults. By the time you enter college it is expected that you will know how to learn, called self-directed learning, which means you should know how to participate in the learning process.
Ray Williams, author of Breaking Bad Habits, wrote an article for Psychology Today titled How to Deal Best with Failure and Stress in which he discussed a study conducted by University of Kent that consisted of 149 students who were to record their activities for a period of up to two weeks and specifically address “the most bothersome failure they experienced during the day, what strategies they used to cope with the failure, and how satisfied they felt at the end of the day.” Their coping strategies included the use of “emotional or instrumental support, self-distraction, denial, religion, venting, substance use, self-blame, and behavioral disengagement.” However, these techniques did not increase or improve their overall feeling of satisfaction or resolution.
What coping strategies were most used by the students in this study to bring about a positive change? The most satisfying techniques included “positive reframing (i.e. trying to see things in a more positive light, looking for something good in what happened), acceptance and humor.” A strategy that was not reported by students was social support, which would include the support of family or friends. I’m surprised by this aspect of the study results, as I have found for myself as an online student and online instructor that a support system can help provide a source of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement – especially for an online classroom environment where you are not present to engage with others. It would be helpful to know if the research included a support system as a choice for students or if they simply took this for granted when they completed their responses.
I’ve also found that an instructor can have an impact on students’ ability to reframe situations, especially those that are perceived by students as failures. I tell students that I want them to get good grades, but more importantly, I want them to believe in themselves and what they are capable of learning and accomplishing. When I provide feedback I don’t discuss it as a success or failure – instead I discuss the criteria as having been met or not met, address developmental issues, find something to praise, and offer resources that will help to support their continued progress. Of course students still often focus on the scores (especially lower scores) first and I encourage them to talk to me about the feedback so I can address their concerns.
It’s a State of Mind
What is the essence of failure as a college student? It’s interesting how students respond when I ask this question because they often relate it to “failing” an exam or assignment, or getting a less than perfect grade. When I probe further and ask why those events are failures, many students state that these are their perceptions about expectations for performance as a student. Some will cite their experience as a child and a parent who expected them to earn all “A’s” in school or a belief that “good grades” will result in greater employment opportunities. While I cannot change long-held perceptions over the course of a school term, I will try to help students participate in the process of learning and provide a supportive environment.
I’ve discovered that students’ fear of failure results from internal self-talk and belief about the learning process. I use a road trip analogy to further emphasize this point. For example, if you are driving a car and see a sign on the side of the road that warns “bumps ahead,” do you stop your car, get out, and believe you can go no further? Most likely you won’t – you’ll proceed with caution. That’s how I want students to view challenges they experience, including the fear of failure – use it as a warning or self-check to make certain they are fully prepared and have the necessary resources.
What students think and believe about themselves determines how they will respond to challenges and react to circumstances that may not have produced the result they hoped for. Just as everyone has an ability to learn at any age, each of us also possesses a source of success called self-belief and self-determination. As an instructor I encourage students to expand their capacity to learn and develop the necessary academic skill sets – and through these productive efforts, along with a shift in thinking, their performance continues to improve.
Here’s my suggestion to help you develop your own approach to success and failure. Whenever you are faced with a possible failure it is often natural to feel fear and apprehension, unless you have developed self-confidence and examine the situation objectively. While you cannot always control circumstances (the feedback or grade received), you can manage your thoughts and reactions. Look for possibilities, not limitations in everything you do. This is where success lies: in your ability to look at your school work as a series of steps in the process of learning. Why not try to do your best and see what happens. If you “fail” consider it an important lesson and opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your academic skills.
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