Failure is NOT an Option

I lived by that phrase as a grad student. I quit my full-time job to pursue the Ph.D. My children were young when I started (ages 5 & 6). My husband carried the load financially and in many supportive ways in order for me to get through the courses, comprehensives, and dissertation defense. My parents and in-laws assisted with childcare. Not finishing, not defending, were NOT options. Too many people were sacrificing with me and for me.

More recently, I learned of a colleague who’s spearheading a multifaceted project involving our college, the city of Reading, a local hospital, and other organizations. He used the expression to convey that the project’s outcome is high stakes. Producing anything less than world-class results is simply unacceptable. When he talks of the project using that phrase, it conveys his urgency and commitment.

How many of our students view college with a “failure is not an option” mindset? If more students shared this mindset, would learning be enhanced?

If the no-quit attitude is focused on learning, imagine the focus these students would bring to the classroom. Assignments would be completed because they want to learn and succeed academically. Ponder the questions students would ask if failure was not an option. Consider the level of motivation we’d witness: students engaging in problem-solving, collaborating in groups, writing, researching, discussing, reading, and studying. We’d be more like mentors and advisors than teachers.

Unfortunately, “failure is not an option” can be aimed at achieving a specific grade or GPA. “I need at least a B+ in this class” motivates a student to do the work, but it does so for the sake of accumulating points, not for learning. And when the target grade or GPA is in jeopardy, we’re left dealing with a student trying to grub for every last point. Intrinsic motivation can be misdirected. Adopting a “failure isn’t an option” mantra doesn’t assure that learning is the goal.

I’m starting to think the “no failure” mindset may often do more harm than good. Here’s what really hit home this week. Students are terrified of making mistakes. Somehow, they’ve come to view mistakes as synonymous with failure. The result is cognitive paralysis. They aren’t sure what to do for an in-class problem and want assurance they are “right” before putting it down on paper. They aren’t sure how to word an explanation, but instead of making a stab at it, they need to confirm their vague idea before committing it to paper.

I witnessed this multiple times over several hours of accounting and economics classes. These were not graded assignments. This was classwork, done individually or in pairs/small groups (students’ choice) for the purpose of practicing concepts just covered in class. Students are afraid to make a mistake even if they are the only one who will know of it!

Teachers know that mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process. Was this never communicated to students?  Didn’t they experience this? I suspect the focus on high-stakes testing, GPAs, and SATs is partly to blame for emphasizing grades and points over learning. But I think college instructors share some responsibility too. Look at your syllabus- is the focus on grade determination or learning? Listen to yourself in class- do you encourage mistakes? Is your class a safe place to take learning risks?

Near the end of accounting class on Wednesday night, I asked for volunteers to place entries on the board. (Students were rewarded with engagement tickets. I continue to research this topic.) As one student finished writing he asked, “What if my answer is wrong?” I replied, “Then we’ll learn from it.”

We reviewed their answers, and I expressed my disappointment that there were no mistakes (this was said with sincerity, not sarcasm). I don’t know if they believed me. But I am going to continue asking students to be brave. To take risks with mistakes. Learning is a mistake-filled process.  I believe students are more motivated to learn than we believe, but I also suspect their goals are misplaced toward grades instead of learning.  Maybe if we help students overcome their fear of mistakes, we’ll find more of them adopting the “no failure” mindset with learning as their goal.

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About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on September 8, 2015, in Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Good morning Dr. Paff 🙂
    What a brilliant start to a brand new academic year! Here in Canada our “squeeze the last bits of out of summer” students don’t start until after Labour Day and so today is Day !.
    Your insights into the necessary tension between having high expectations (Failure is NOT an option) and the value of making mistakes in learning, should be required reading for every faculty member walking into a classroom for the first or the fiftieth time this week.
    Thanks for sharing these ideas and for continuing to focus on what’s necessary for learning and how to help our students move in difficult and sometimes scary directions.

  1. Pingback: Resources, Strategies & Advice | Guide on the Side

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