Failure is a regular column topic—specifically, the need for students and their teachers to reorient to it as an opportunity for learning. Our natural inclination makes us want to run from it. We don’t need to intentionally fail; plenty of it happens without intention, and we aren’t ever going to enjoy failing. We just need to see it for what it is: the inability to do something and the chance to try again.
Despite my concerns about the topic and ongoing interest in collecting good resources on this and other salient teaching-learning topics, the literature is virtually silent on failure. Oh, there’s plenty material on student success, the need for it, and the various institutional policies and practices that promote it. There’s also plenty of data documenting that a lot of college students struggle with failure. And finally, there’s now an in-depth article that proposes a theoretical framework for understanding what students do when failure looms as a possibility and how they respond when it occurs.
The article (Henry et al., 2019) considers failure in the context of STEM courses. Is there something unique or different about how STEM students respond to failure compared to students in other content areas? The article doesn’t identify any uniqueness, although it infers that context matters. At this point we don’t have empirical evidence documenting what kind of role content plays in failure experiences.
The authors build a model that shows how five noncognitive factors affect students’ responses to failure, both as they anticipate its possibility (pre-failure) and when it actually occurs (post-failure): mindset, goal orientation, fear of failure, attributions, and coping responses. Most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with these psychological constructs, but they’re almost always considered discreetly. This framework puts them together in a series of interactive, iterative relationships.
It’s starts with Dweck’s fixed and growth mindsets: “Individuals with a fixed mindset are more likely to see learning as an opportunity to prove their talent and intelligence . . . and may see academic challenges as things to be avoided.” Closely related to the idea of mindsets is the construct of goal orientation. A mastery orientation drives students to learning that equates with understanding, retention, and the ability to apply what’s been learned. Performance goals are about looking competent. Performance-oriented students may embrace challenge at first, but as soon as failure appears as a possibility, they start reducing effort and offering excuses unrelated to ability (“I’m too busy to study,” “I don’t need a good grade in this course”). And it’s at this point that the fear of failure really kicks in, consuming efforts to study with worry. Students may also engage in serious “self-handicapping” and “explain away” anticipated or actual failure. (“I had three tests this week.”) Mindset is considered the overarching construct—the one that sets up how students orient to failure. But mindset, goal orientation, and fear of failure interact reciprocally as they build on each other.
And it’s also easy to see how these constructs set up how students respond to actual failure. Attribution theory further explains the causes of failure. Do they stem from within, or are they sourced externally? Are they stable, permanent, and unchangeable, like ability, or are they controllable, like effort? Different combinations of these explanations identify four causes of academic success and failure. Failure may be attributed to a lack of ability (“I can’t do it”), a lack of effort (“I only studied for an hour”), the difficulty of the task (“The test was too hard”), or luck (“I didn’t luck out on any of my guesses”). Finally, there’s how students cope with failure by using adaptive or maladaptive strategies. A coping mechanism is considered maladaptive “when it exacerbates threats to the individual’s well-being and prevents resolution or progress beyond the stressor.” Research has shown that coping strategies become increasingly stable over time. Students who drop courses drop a lot of them. Students who avoid studying for one exam are more likely to avoid studying for the next one.
As impressive as this model is at integrating how students think about and respond to failure, the authors write that “in reality, these constructs and their interactions are much more complex.” The constructs themselves are not tight boxes; a student may have a mindset somewhere between fixed and growth or believe that ability is malleable to a point. Context also matters. Students believe they can do some things and not others. Background and culture exert influence. Research has shown that interventions targeted at changing the constructs have differential effects—for “well-served” and “under-served” populations, for example.
This is one of those articles I strongly recommend—not for when you’re tired or need an uplift but for when you want to better understand the phenomenon of failure—as it applies not only to students but to the rest of us as well.
Henry, M. A., Shorter, S., Charkoudian, L., Heemstra, J. M., & Corwin, L. A. (2019). FAIL is not a four-letter word: A theoretical framework for exploring undergraduate students’ approaches to academic challenge and responses to failure in STEM learning environments. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-06-0108 [open access]
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