Helping Students Cope with Failure in College

by Julie “Jules” Troyer Ph.D.

Failing a test can make a student feel like crawling in a hole

Jackson completed high school with a 3.8 GPA and has never failed a test in her life. She rarely had to study and generally found she could finish any homework before she went home from school. The bottom line is school was always very easy for Jackson and she believes she is smart, good at school, and overall far more competent than most of her peers. Jackson has just started at a State University and is confident she can continue to approach school in the same way she did in high school. She receives her first exam score back and sees she has received an F and her first term paper earns her a B-; she is shocked and dismayed! The professors must have gotten it wrong, they surely made mistakes in grading her work. She storms into Professor X and Y’s respective office hours demanding a recount! Each of the professors patiently goes over why Jackson earned the grade she did, leaving Jackson feeling overwhelmed with failure. She cannot accept that she is a C or F student. She has always gotten A’s. Her identity, confidence, and motivation are destroyed.

Jackson’s story is a common one in many University settings. Many high school students have gotten used to maintaining an A average with very little work. They are naturally organized, motivated, and relatively intelligent students who could survive the general standards of high school without needing to put forth very much effort. Many of these types of students are disturbed when they are confronted with the fact that for them to maintain an A or B average in a higher education institution they have to buckle down and actually put in hours of studying. In truth, many students like Jackson have never even learned the skills to study effectively or the skill of how to deal with failure.

Tools to help students cope better with failure include:

  • Understanding what was done wrong to avoid doing it again
  • Knowing that everyone fails at one time or another
  • Focusing on improvement, not just complete success
  • Knowing that in order to get better one needs to make mistakes
  • Focusing on what is being learned, not just the grade
  • Keeping the big goals in mind (graduation, career, family, faith, etc.)
  • Being process not product minded

At the higher education level there is often no resources for remediation of a student like Jackson. It is usually expected that students have mastered the art of studying and know how to maintain motivation in the face of a problematic performance. Especially with the Millennial generation, who have always been told they are capable of accomplishing anything and given awards for participation, this may not be the case. For many students of the Millennial generation, it is a rude awakening to the realization that the whole world does not adhere to the idea that they are perfect.

Higher Education institutions would benefit from integrating seminars, courses, or program changes to address this. Courses on “How to Cope With Failure” or “Study Skills 101” would assist students, especially in-coming freshman, with tools to assist them in attaining vital skills that are often overlooked.

The process to succeed in high school is not necessarily the same process in college and students are often not counseled in how to adapt to a more demanding academic environment.  Additionally, it is the role of Higher Education to prepare healthy and talented citizens for success and it is integral to include some experience in how to cope with failure, resilience and perseverance, and general techniques to adapt to changing circumstances.

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9 Comments

  1. Crystal Johnston says:

    I think this article hints on the most important way to succeed in education: intrinsic motivation. If your goals are based on your -own- joy, not on grades, making your parents happy, or whatever it is, education is fun. Personally, I do not see reading textbooks as a chore; it is something I enjoy, something I want to do. Thus, motivation to do tedious or hard tasks is easier for me than the extrinsically motivated student.
    However, I think something important is missing from this article: picking a major that you actually want to study; this is the ultimate way to make education intrinsic, and thus increase your motivation. I see far too many students in college who are studying a major that they just do not care about; this is something I cannot wrap my head around. Yes, getting a good career is the ultimate goal, but, there are more important things than making money; success is nothing without happiness. I personally, could not see studying anything but psychology; thus, studying is intrinsically motivated for me. When you truly have found your calling, studying and reading is fun, learning is fun, life is better. I think many students don’t understand me when I say I like studying, because they have chosen their major because of this or that, but not because it’s what they want to do. If you take a step back and really think about life, it’s not hard to see how intrinsic motivation affects your grades, general enthusiasm, and happiness.

  2. Sierra Havrilla says:

    Many high school students do come to college and encounter an extreme wake-up call. Higher learning requires much more effort than those transitioning from the high school to college level realize. I did not have such a hard time transitioning when I started college, but as a junior I am now experiencing those difficulties. Coping with failure is my biggest struggle in college. I have grown accustomed to obtaining A’s in every class throughout my freshman and sophomore years of college. Now that I am a junior in my major classes A’s have not come so easily. Receiving a B on my first test in one of my classes this semester was devastating. I can relate to this article in the reaction Jackson had to her grades. Personally, not obtaining all A’s in my classes equals failure. I agree that colleges would benefit from including seminars or classes that focus on “coping with failure”. I think it is very important for professors to express that learning the information is more important than obtaining that A, as you Dr. Troyer have stated before. I cannot agree more with your point that perseverance is a way to better cope with failure. It is important for students to work through the classes they are struggling in instead of giving up and dropping the class. I believe making the extra effort by possibly altering study habits to improve their performance in the class would result in a better attitude towards school. I know when I accomplish the goal I set for myself I find that the feeling of failure no longer exists even if I did not make an A. Reading this article was beneficial to me because the points you made about coping with failure are helpful. I think this article is a great article that is important for all college students to read.

  3. Yancy Turner says:

    As a high school student I was never too concerned with studying, and getting bad grades didn’t bother me however they did not happen that often. A lot like Jackson, I too had a wake up call this semester. I realized that coming to class is not enough. You have to read the book, and put in the study hours. As a student who didn’t develop good study habits in high school it would be amazing to have a class that would genuinely help me create them.

    • Yancy,
      You phrase it exactly right, they are study “habits” and it is difficult to unlearn a poor strategy…but it can be done with awareness and perseverance like you have!

  4. Kiara Clark says:

    Dr. Troyer I most definitely can relate to this article. I too was one of those students in high school that was considered an over achiever. However, once I became a freshman here at Valdosta State everything changed for me pretty much. Science courses were extremely hard for me and I could only maintain C’s in them. That is when I realized that high school is pretty much and breeze and those grades I earned back them aren’t really a direct measure of how well I studied and retained information. College courses are much more difficult that those in high school. I feel that anyone can achieve a high school diploma, but to go the distance and obtain a bachelors and masters degree holds more meaning.
    The strategies you pointed out were extremely valid and I find that I used most of them to get to where I am today as far as my grades. I empathize with the fact that you have to keep your focus on your long term goals and not just about the final grade. Also I agree with focusing in what is actually being learned. This is a great article.

    • Kiara,
      Your point about keeping focus on the long-term goals and not just immediate grades really highlights the key to coping with any bumps along the road. It really is all about the “big picture!”

  5. John says:

    This is a very helpful article for teachers and students. We live in a world where failure is not always understood as a vital part of the learning process…which it most certainly is~

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