Let’s Change The Way We Perceive Failing

It is not a secret that University culture emphasizes success, ambition, and hard work. It is also likely that every student has, at least once throughout their degree, been told that failing is a key part of the learning process. But what does University culture constitute as “failing?”

Academic disappointments are tucked away in a corner for students to start discovering once they begin their academic journeys. In many cases, however, students feel as though they have failed when, by definition, they haven’t actually failed. Speaking from experience and from conversations with students, it is the failure to meet the expectations of what a successful student looks like that is equally as disappointing as actually failing a test or exam. Failure, in this way, can be very subjective and the word ‘failure’ is often thrown around without its literal meaning being taken into account.

I spoke to our Arts editor, Jayme Miller, about this and she shared,

“I totally agree with what you were saying about how failure is very subjective. I think in my last year of university I have come to a very different mindset about grades. I used to be obsessed with getting the highest possible grade, and would even be disappointed with a good grade if I knew it wasn’t the highest in the class. It was so unhealthy and destructive. It was probably my semester abroad last year with Go Global that really changed my whole mindset. Since my grades there were pass/fail, (that’s how Go Global works), I knew that even if I tried really hard and put all my energy and time into doing well, it wouldn’t really matter in the end. And I also knew that I wanted to make the most of my time in Scotland. In the end, I still put in a good effort, but I was much more concerned with allowing myself to have fun, to have new experiences and memories, rather than focusing on readings and essays. And in the end, I still did pretty well, even though my grades were lower than in previous semesters. A previous version of myself definitely would have considered those grades a “failure.” But I had the time of my life there, and I just really thought to myself, isn’t this the better way to go about university? Actually having a life and creating memorable experiences, rather than risking my mental health for a super high grade? I know for some people it’s different, especially if they want to do post-grad stuff, but for me, I’m a lot happier and healthier with this new mindset. It’s all about balance.”

Academic failure can be harsh, grating, and disappointing. However, as Jayme implies, the word ‘failure’ is often used in a hyperbolic way, which leads students to feel worse about themselves and their stature as academics. With online University, it seems as though the pressure to not ‘fail’ as a student is even greater, both in terms of academia and in terms of personal goals. How do we change the way in which failure is perceived in our University culture, then? Can we as students commit to stop using the word “failure” in hyperbolic contexts?

Because when a student says that they have failed, though in reality they simply earned a lower grade than they were expecting, it reinforces a false University culture of what success needs to look like. In fact, a student, who chose to remain anonymous, shared how frustrating it is to compare test marks with other students, especially when they hear someone say they failed an exam when really they earned 70%. It is disheartening to students, like themselves, who have literally failed the same exam and who are genuinely struggling with their work.

Clearly, we need to change the way we perceive failing in our university culture. While failing does cultivate resilience, students have not failed, nor are they failures, if they are behind in a class, struggling in a class, or if they receive a lower grade than they wanted. Let’s stop throwing the word ‘failure’ around in contexts where it does not actually apply.

Let’s also remember that actually failing does not mean that you have failed as a person or human being. It means you have taken a risk and applied yourself. Emmah Barber provided her perspective on failure from an engineering student perspective, where academic failure is quite common, “I think that there is almost a culture of failure instilled in Engineering where it is common to fail midterms and exams or even courses. I do think that you need a certain fear of failure to push yourself to succeed, but I also think too much fear of failure can get in the way of how you do in school and definitely affect your mental health. It’s taken me until my last year to not completely fear failure, I think because by now I’ve learned through experience that it all evens out in the end.”

Ultimately, University grades and exams, regardless of the results, do not define students. In light of this, we need to reevaluate the way we, collectively, speak about failure.

It is much easier said than done, but I would encourage students to take heart in the words of Courtney Johnson, “Give yourself permission to fail. [But] don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try.”

Find his TedTalk here.