Academic Failure is Not Permanent – Is Just a Learning Stage

Although for the educational system, the summer period means vacation and periods of academic hiatus, every year during these months certain categories of students go through exams, admissions, and final certifications. All of them go into a „tunnel vision” with the final destination „academic success”, but for many of them at the end of the tunnel, there happen to be unpleasant surprises. Sometimes failure awaits there. Whether it’s a massive failure or just the hundreds of points that condition your academic course (and therefore your life if you’re 18 years old). And this is a word that I will use excessively in this article, just to… desensitize us a little.

The primary instinct is to persecute failure or if it is someone we like and love, to offer unconditional consolation. But before acting mechanically, let’s discuss a little what failure is and what is its place in the grand scheme of what „human learning” means beyond the blurry lens that school and formal systems assigned to it.

The educational system is by definition associated with success and performance as a final objective. In this way, failure is generally seen as demoralizing, discouraging, and unfortunately a profound proof of the lack of value. What I mean by this is that students at a young age identify themselves with the grades and results they get. If the results are successful, then they are successful, if the results are mediocre, the student perceives himself as mediocre. The massive sadness of this phenomenon is exacerbated when teachers make the same „beginner” mistake: failure becomes so stigmatized and persecuted from a young age that even teachers no longer treat it with discernment or a grain of salt. Because, paradoxically, failure is an essential component in the process of human learning and development.

If your student is already a perfect 10 student, you as a teacher have no purpose there.

This article will explore (I) the importance of failure in learning, emphasizing (II) how failures can be turned into valuable opportunities and lessons.

I. The Importance of Failure in Learning

Failure is an experience that most of us avoid with chills and fear. Throughout life, however, failure proves to be an experience present in various chapters of our lives, whether we are talking about academic results or life in general. But behind this negative feeling lies an important truth: failure is a powerful catalyst for growth and development.

Failure provides a unique opportunity to learn and grow. We are exposed to our limitations and weaknesses when we fail at a particular task or goal. This allows us to better understand what aspects we need to improve and what strategies we need to adopt to achieve the desired success. Every failure should be a chance to adjust, experiment with new approaches, and develop our skills.

Differences between individuals appear in how we perceive and interpret failure. Those who approach failure with a positive attitude see it as an opportunity to learn and improve, while those who adopt a negative attitude focus on feelings of incompetence or disappointment. The role of teachers thus, becomes educating their students towards the choice of a resilient attitude. When we face failure, we are forced to reflect on our past actions and decisions. This self-reflection allows us to identify where we went wrong and what we should have done differently.

But these psychological processes become blocked and unattainable when we remain stuck in the paradigm of failure = incompetence/lack of value. Only by understanding the causes of failure can we gain a deeper insight and a more complete understanding of the subject or field in which we have failed.

As for the most stubborn and success oriented of us, failure can be a source of inspiration and creativity. When traditional methods fail or simply do not suit us, we are motivated to find alternative solutions, explore, and create new perspectives. Perhaps this is why the arts and creative fields are so ‘’ error friendly’’. Mistakes can free us from conventional constraints and encourage us to think innovatively and critically. We can discover new and innovative approaches in learning and other fields through trial and error.

II. How Failure Can Be Alchemized into Opportunities

1. Failure motivation – is an important concept in understanding how the experiences we go through, can stimulate and fuel our desire to achieve the desired success. For some of us, the lack of success acts as a catalyst for motivation in several ways.

First, when we experience failure, it is necessary to reevaluate our approaches and strategies used up to that point. We ask ourselves what we could have done wrong and what needs to be changed to achieve the desired results. This revaluation causes us to focus either on personal development or on identifying the solutions necessary to achieve success. Or both.

Second, failure can fuel our desire to learn and grow. Humans love to understand and have a clear perspective on things, so when we experience errors, we are often motivated to better understand the causes and factors that contributed to the undesirable outcome.

Another important aspect of failure motivation is related to increasing determination and confidence in our own abilities. When we experience failure and strive to overcome it, we are tested and challenged emotionally and mentally. However, by overcoming these obstacles and continuing to strive, we develop determination and confidence in our abilities.

2. Development of critical skills – is a complex process through which the individual develops the ability to think analytically and identify alternative solutions in the face of failure. Critical thinking skills include:  objective assessment of available information – detailed analysis of the situation and causes of failure – identification of weaknesses and strengths – and development of appropriate strategies to overcome difficulties.

The unpleasant and undesirable experience of failure sometimes serves as an incentive to develop these critical thinking skills. In the case of educational activities, when faced with a failure, the student is put in a position to look for new ways of approaching and solving problems. As conventional approaches have proven to be ineffective, a change of perspective and a critical analysis of the situation is required. In this process, the student is encouraged to think creatively and identify alternative solutions, which may be more effective and innovative than the previous ones or simply more suitable for him as an individual.

In this way, failure can be transformed –  in a friendly and not personal way – into an opportunity to explore unconventional methods and approaches, which can lead to even better results. Thus, the student becomes more able to adapt to challenges and find innovative solutions in the face of complex situations, and these critical thinking skills will remain with the student in the future, helping him to effectively approach life’s challenges and achieve long-term success.

3. Improving resilience and personal growth – when we experience failures, we are subject to negative emotions such as disappointment, frustration, low self-esteem, and demotivation.

However, managing these emotions can be taught and learned. I said at the beginning of the article that the biggest problem is not the failure itself, but the way in which people from competitive and success-oriented environments relate to it.

If you want to take the long road to success and not the short way (which is the penalty), this long road involves a crucial stop: acceptance of failure. This ability helps us build resilience and determination. If we teach students that failure exists both as a probability and as a component, they can relate to it as an incident that teaches us to get up again, reinvent ourselves, and try to overcome it. By accepting and managing failure, we grow in wisdom and understand that success is a process that involves effort and perseverance. And perseverance is the keyword here and may be subject to another discussion. This mindset of personal growth beyond grades and hundreds of points, is essential both in learning and in general, as it prepares us to face challenges – another unpleasant yet present ingredient of life.

So, to conclude, failure can be considered a step forward and a source of precious learning. First, and in hierarchical order, teachers are the ones who in moments of self-righteous humility, should withdraw from the collective flow of convictions, reflect and use their discernment regarding the tacit value and definition people give to failure. Secondly, it would be useful to develop a failure-friendly culture in their teaching activity. So that in the end, this correct understanding of errors is to be taught and integrated into students. Furthermore, once this profoundly human possibility to mistake in countless ways and moments is properly understood, it can be transformed from a defining experience into a temporary situation.

Through motivation, deep understanding, development of critical skills, and personal growth, students can turn experiences of failure into an engine for success. Even if this will require extra time and additional psychological or emotional resources, step out of the small frames, and think from a life-long perspective. In the end, failure with always be somehow present in our lives, humans misjudge, mistakes, and make errors but we can sometimes transform all these into steps on the road to development and achieving our goals.

Failure is not permanent – it’s just a stage. The crucial stage is the next one – what do you do after failure?


prof. Oana Onciu

Facultatea de Psihologie și Științe ale Educației, Universitatea Alexandru Ioan Cuza, Iași (Iaşi) , România
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