How Fear of Failure Affects Learning
Today’s world seems like it can be a pretty high pressure place.
The job is where most people feel the highest amount of stress. They can push you to work extra hours at the office and sometimes even at home. It’s even worse for people with families.
Adults aren’t the only ones to feel pressure, though.
Students can feel lot’s of pressure to perform in the classroom. Not only in college, but high school and grade school as well. This pressure can come from parents and teachers, usually with the justification that they need good grades to succeed in life.
Nobody likes to fail. However, fear of failure can have an effect on how a child learns.
As it turns out, that may not be a good thing.
The Goal of Failure Avoidance
Scientists from several universities got to together to see how fear of failure drove students to behave. The results of their study was published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.
They gave over a 1,000 students questionnaires. They asked about their learning motivations and the methods that they used to study. The group consisted of 600 high school students and over 400 college students.
Researchers found that students had many different goals. Answers ranged from wanting to completely master the material to avoiding doing worse than other students.
However, the goals didn’t matter when it came to fear of failing. The analysis found that students who had a fear of failing adopted learning as a way to stroke their own ego. To prove that they were superior to others.
They didn’t learn because it was in their best interest. Or because they enjoyed it. The goal was adopted because it was a form of validation.
Scientists also found that these students were less likely to adopt effective learning strategies. And they were also more likely to cheat.
This analysis says some pretty interesting things about how our perspective can affect our behavior and learning. It also says something about how we should portray learning and failure in general.
Dr. Michou, the lead scientist on the study, notes this as well by saying this in a statement:
“These findings suggest two important points for children’s optimal learning. First, teachers and parents have to be more sensitive on how they evaluate young children’s competence. Very high standards and criticism result in increased levels of fear of failure.”
It’s also illuminates the fact that what we tell children is important. When they ask why they are learning something, your answer can affect their motivation.
Dr. Michou comments on how to approach these questions:
“Second, teachers and parents have to be more sensitive to the rational they provide to children to adopt a goal or engage in an activity. Suggesting children to improve their skills for their own enjoyment and development is much more beneficial than suggesting them to improve their skills in order to prove themselves.”
Usually the rationale we provide kids for studying goes something like this.
Good grades can get you into competitive colleges. You need to go to a good college, so you can possibly land a higher paying, more prestigious job. A better job can indicate how successful you are, which equates to a higher social standing.
Naturally, this puts a lot of pressure on children and young adults in the academic environment.
A study in 2012 – published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General – found that pressure could have a negative effect on learning. In several experiments children were told that learning was difficult. Those children were shown to perform better on tests than those that didn’t receive the intervention.
This was most likely due to a confidence boost received when their fear of failure was reduced. While this may only be a temporary boost, it is another piece of evidence that shows perspective has an effect on performance and learning.
The Right Motivation
It’s pretty easy to see how kids might feel the need to prove themselves. This message is being reinforced with the current trend of increased testing. A message that carries with it the pressure to succeed.
Students shouldn’t fear learning. They also shouldn’t fear making mistakes. It would be a wondrous world if kid’s didn’t fear failure but embraced it.
It might sound a little bit crazy, but is it really that far fetched?
Getting something wrong, shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a sign failure. It should simply be recognized as a sign of learning. And learning is a good thing.