#ThinkPossible: Curbing Fear of Failure

August 22, 2016 Updated August 19, 2016

As a rookie high school history teacher, with the best of intentions I often told my students that a single upcoming test or assignment would significantly impact their overall grades. By my doing that, I mistakenly thought, they would study that much harder and ultimately perform that much better. If only I could go back in time and bonk myself on the head for such careless thinking, which often backfired. Between school, assorted after-school activities, various family obligations, and maintaining a healthy social life, students don’t respond well when faced with any unnecessary added pressure. Who would? Unhealthy levels of anxiety get in the way of effective studying, with students worrying over minutia instead of the more important larger picture.

Since I rarely gave students a test-review sheet, or provided them with examples of effective writing, I only contributed to their angst. Moreover, whenever students performed poorly or below expectations, they demonstrated an array of negative emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration—sometimes at themselves but mostly at me. That made it all the more difficult for students just to let it go, move on, and do better next time. In retrospect, I’m ashamed to say that I even took pride in posing especially challenging questions that prevented most students from showing what they knew. As a young teacher fearful of being viewed as “soft,” I also made the horrible gaffe of attributing lateness to laziness. I rarely gave credit for late work, which fed into the narrative that I cared more about being strict than helping students learn.

All of that changed when I spoke with Rick Wormeli, a celebrated teacher and author of one of my favorite books, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. My “aha” moment came when Wormeli told me that he would not let a student’s “lack of emotional or mature development dictate his destiny or hold his learning hostage.” Instead, he would work with that individual, side-by-side, to address underlying impediments to his or her learning. “To give the child an F on the paper and kind of wag an admonishing finger from afar and say, ‘Oh, that’ll teach you to meet deadlines,’ doesn’t even come close to building self-discipline,” Wormeli says. “The maturation comes from recovering from the missed deadline, not being labeled for the missed deadline.” Thanks in large part to Wormeli, I completely revamped how I approached teaching and assessment. Here are just a few examples:

Allow retakes. Except for the mid-term and final exams, I give students a one-week window to take a full-credit retake. Everybody has bad days, but I also want my students to know that I care less when they master a certain skill or concept than that is in fact mastered. As a result, my students feel less stressed about taking assessments. In my experience, fear of failure—or more precisely, fear of not being able to recover from failure—often prevents students from succeeding in the first place. Students who do poorly report feeling more confident for the retake, mirroring the stellar results most of them receive.

Ditch surprises. On the first day of class, I tell students that nothing in my class will be a surprise. This means that at the start of each unit, students know exactly which questions and terms will appear on assessments. Accordingly, they know what material I really want them to focus on, and not to get caught up in minutia. Still, I always urge students to bring up for discussion related topics that don’t appear on review sheets. For in-class essays, well in advance I provide students with a list of questions, one of which they will receive on test day.

Show examples. Before students begin their first research paper, I share anonymous examples from previous students. I ask students to discuss and assess each paper and what grade they think each should earn. I’m always amazed at how harsh students are, and they are surprised when I share my own assessment. By analyzing the differences between F, D, C, B, sand A papers, students have a clearer idea of what is expected of them. This leads to less stress and also better final results. Encourage creativity Instead of always giving just another major writing assignment, I do my best to allow students to show their understanding using more creative means. Last year, a student created a mock presidential website to show his understanding of politics and major campaign issues. I was so impressed with his writing, reporting, and design skills that I urged him to take an online class in the spring. Another student, an especially strong creative writer, composed a terrific piece of historical fiction about the Civil War. I could never come close to matching her storytelling.

With the start of the school year just around the corner, remember that changing how you assess is possible. Your students will benefit.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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