Fear of Failure in Students
Students in the UK are probably less likely to fail than ever before. For instance, the proportion of first class honours awarded has tripled since 1994.1 Yet fear of academic failure has risen, particularly among girls here, who now rank fifth in the world for fear of failure.2
Here I explore what can be done to reduce this fear. I’d welcome insights on this from fellow researchers.
A girls’ school in Australia is normalising and embracing failure.3 During the school's "Failure Week", teachers display examples of their own failures. "We want our students to recognise that failure, and making mistakes, is a really crucial part of learning," says head of counselling, Bridget McPherson. In the past, teachers used positive reinforcement to boost students' self-esteem. Unfortunately this didn’t have the desired effects, instead offering a "false sense" of how well students were doing.
Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist explains that those who are "failure deprived" (a term coined by staff at Stanford and Harvard) have poorer coping skills and are much more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Smith College, for instance, offers a "Failing Well" initiative.4 The program also encourages resilience, offers workshops on impostor syndrome and perfectionism and aims to destigmatise failure by making it known that it is OK and common to "fail". Similar projects normalising setbacks and struggles are available at Harvard (The Success Failure Project), Stanford (Stanford, I Screwed Up!) and Princeton (The Princeton Perspective Project).5
This approach is also now being embraced in a number of schools in the UK, particularly in the independent sector, including Shrewsbury School and Wimbledon High School.6
Females are far more likely to experience anxiety around fear of failure than their male counterparts, even though they do better academically than boys at school and are more likely to secure places at university. In a 2013 study, female engineering students had lower levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy stemming from perceived inadequacy in competing with their male counterparts in a career area deemed more traditionally masculine. However, this doesn’t explain why female students should be more anxious in subjects not deemed traditionally male – suggesting that more research is needed here.
The Value of Self Efficacy
Frank Haber, a Psychological Counsellor in Germany explains that students with more reflective self-efficacy (a belief in their ability to deal with different situations) experience lower levels of anxiety, believe in their capabilities to overcome challenges and focus on potential gains rather than losses.7 Furthermore, these students have a "cross-the-bridge-when-it-comes" approach to failure, allowing them to consider consequences should failure actually occur.
In 2015, a study at the University of Bergen in Norway investigated the effects of an 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction programme on 29 students experiencing academic evaluation anxiety.8 By the end of the study, the students had developed between them a mixture of finding an inner sense of calm, focusing better, greater feelings of self-acceptance in the face of difficult situations, and reframing the concept of fear as curiosity when experiencing challenges. Students also found that sharing experiences with other students helped them to feel less alone and normalised their struggles.
Initiatives to help students recognise failure as a fact of life, from which they can learn, can have positive outcomes. Instead of bringing doom and gloom this may reduce fear of failure. Recognising failure as an experience to learn from can help strengthen students' resilience, promote the development of healthy coping mechanisms, and allow for better reflection - all important strategies needed in preparation for success at university and in the wider world beyond it.
Sophie Izzard March 2020
This article first appeared as a blog on the website of SMARTEN, the higher education research network focusing on student mental health -