Fear of Failure

Kohn’s article mentions that grading is detrimental to students. “Psychologists worry because grades fix students’ attention on their performance” (Kohn, 2011, p.2). In addition, grading systems “promote a fear of failure even in high-achieving students” (Kohn, 2011, p.2). I decided to find out how this fear may impact performance. Jennifer Crocker is “a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research” (Dittman, 2002). According to her, worrying about grades may impact memory (Dittman, 2002). Dr. Crocker “speculates that students who base their self-worth on academic performance might become anxious and distracted and threatened by feelings of failure, and, as such, their anxiety might then interfere with their memory” (Dittman, 2002). This is important because worrying about grades (fear of failure) may negatively impact memory, which may lead to low grades.

Dittman, M. (2002). Self-esteem that’s based on external sources has mental health consequences, study says. Monitor on Psychology, 33(11), 16. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec02/selfesteem.aspx

Kohn, A. (2011). The Case Against Grades. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/

9 Replies to “Fear of Failure”

  1. Hi Ernesto! I’m glad you did some external research and brought in the impact worrying about grades has on memory. This is probably why I’ve been eternally bad at taking standardized tests, from state-regulated test to the SAT and GRE. It has always been a struggle. I think it is both the pressure of the test and its effect on memory as well as the time crunch. Now we are invited to use Canvas (our online content managing system at VT) and when we make quizes for students we much include a time limit for how long they can take to finish the quiz. We are using technology, but using it to reinforce the same issues.

    1. Good point about Canvas. Not only that, exams on Canvas (without using the annoyingly difficult lockdown brower) allows for students to just look up the information quickly, answer the question, and move on without ever actually learning the material. These are so pointless, in my opinion, and I hate them. But I am required to use exams as a graduate instructor. I could use another format for exams, but in an online class, that just ends up being essentially the same as the other assignments that make up the course. So, that feels redundant. I feel like I’m in a lose-lose situation on that one!

  2. This is interesting. I agree and from personal experience student anxiety seems to turn into an attack on the ‘grader’. Rather than focus on why a grade was given and what could be done by the learner to improve and really grasp the material which is the intended objective, communications around any grade below an ‘A’ are strained. Moving beyond this grading scheme would be beneficial to both educator and learner.

  3. That’s an excellent point Bailey. How often have we thought the instructor is out to get me, so they gave me a bad grade. Maybe there was a misinterpretation of the instructions or what the student did. Rather than thinking about the material, the student is disengaging to attack the grader. I personally was disheartened to read that students don’t look at the feedback, just the grade. Even if they were concerned about getting a good grade, the feedback is there to help them. Some of it is constructive, but other parts of it should be reinforcing the good points and ideas students make. Maybe be being more positive with feedback and saying why you earned the points could alleviate some of the anxiety over grades.

  4. This was a really interesting article that you included! Thanks for sharing! And the comments have been really interesting as well! I think it could be really beneficial if educators provided feedback (without assigning a letter grade) at an intermediate point in a project or course module so that students can then incorporate and revise based on comments and suggestions. It seems like so many times, grades are assigned at the end of something with no opportunities to revise. Thanks for the post!

  5. When I got a “B” in a one credit lab my first semester of college, I thought my life was over. I thought I could never follow the dreams I had for myself. My mom, however, was ecstatic. I distinctly remember her saying “well, no after 6 years of all As, you can breathe!” At first I did not understand. In fact, it took me a long time to understand. But, now, as a graduate student, I get it. She was just happy that some of the pressure was off my back. I still strive to get As in all of my classes and to do as best as I can at the things I do; however, my grades, even some of my feedback, do not define me anymore. It is my hope that others can learn this lesson a lot faster than I could!

  6. Great post! Memory is important for academia, and the added stress of getting an A can definitely affect a student negatively. How should we reconsider our grading mechanisms? Should we reward effort? I struggle with this question, because if we proceed with these methods will the student even bother to learn the material? I am at odds with my own pedagogical practices, I want them to succeed, but I have requirements to meet as well. I really like this discussion though!

  7. I just want to add that beside the fear of grade, there are many other factors that make almost any student anxious at school. Anxiety is a serious issue both at undergraduate and graduate levels and learning environments shouldn’t exacerbate it by traditional systems of standardization. I have been a TA for more than a year and in this relatively short period, I have faced many students who had family issues, deaths of family members or friends, mental health issues, etc. Even if such issues would not exist, millennials tend to be anxious because of their lifestyles, and, in many cases, they have serious financial concerns. There is a variety of methods to not to cause additional troubles through grading and assessment which should be applied by instructors at any educational level.

  8. You bring up a good point about failure. Students are wired to believe that failing is a bad thing. It stems from a young age with the concept of awarding participation trophies. An emphasis needs to be placed on learning from mistakes and the development/growth that occurs from failing.

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