Blog Post

Speaking of Failure

Speaking of Failure

In “The Invention of Failure,” Dr. Cathy N. Davidson rightly argues that we should eliminate “flunk out” courses which have traditionally been defined as rigorous and demanding simply because so many students fail them. Instead, she proposes developing rigorous and demanding courses that set a high bar of excellence and in which all students could theoretically earn an “A.”

I share Davidson’s fascination the “failure in the Industrial Age, and the clear relationship between learning failure and Taylorism and all the aspect of scientific labor management of the era.” However, while studying the invention of failure and its legacy, we need to also address the fear of failure that millennial students bring to the classroom.

Today’s younger students have too often been raised in environments that are overly protective. They have experienced competitive sports in which no score is kept and events where everyone gets a trophy for simply showing up.   These students have lived with helicopter parents who solve difficulties for their children instead of letting their children grow into adulthood by learning from their mistakes. Unfortunately, some of these “children” are already their 20s.

Rigorous standards can be threatening to students whom have not been permitted to experience failure.   As a student once told my Dean, “I don’t want to think. I want Dr. Berg to tell me what he wants.” This was a bright student who could have easily met the expectations of the course, but she was too afraid of failure to even risk starting out on the path to success.

Some of the strategies I have been incorporating in my syllabi to address the fear of failure include:

Participation = 70%

If students attend class regularly and do their homework, they are essentially guaranteed a “C” in the course. I explain to students that those who attend class regularly and complete assignments cannot help but get an even higher grade than a “C” and that many (most?) of the class can earn 4.0s.

While the guaranteed 70% is comforting to students who fear failure, high expectations mean that students cannot get a trophy by simply showing up for class. Students must be present and prepared. For example, students who don’t complete the required research for tomorrow’s class will be permitted to participate in the discussion, but they will not earn any participation points.

Ruth Jeffrey’s “Continuity Error” was a homework assignment for which she earned participation points.   Statistically, this assignment was worth about 5% of the course grade, but to include such assignments as part of participation makes them less threatening to those students who fear failure.

False Rubrics

Because I do not assign topics and instead insist that student projects grow out of broad based research, students can fear failure because they are not handed a rubric defining the specifics of their lightning talks or other major assignments. To help allay their fears, I give students a list of the 14 types of references they will be consulting. It looks like a rubric and fearful students find comfort in being able to check off each step as it is completed.

I refer to this as a false rubric because it provides comfort without providing the specific details the fearful students want; details that would get in the way of quality research.

Small Steps

The first research assignment is for students to look up their broad topic (e.g. the Civil War or contemporary education) in Wikipedia and to do an Internet search concerning their topic. Because Wikipedia and Google are familiar to them, students do not experience a fear of failure. By the time they are asked to consult sources not written in English, they already have a series of successfully completed assignments and have less fear when asked to do the seemingly impossible.

Teaching Previous Student Work

Last year, I launched three websites on which to publish quality student work: College History, Film Studies, and Scholarly Voices. This semester, I have already assigned essays written by previous students to my current students whose first day of class was last week. By assigning the work of previous students such as Brandon Schulz’s “Civil War Medicine,” current students are able to see the results of a process that they do not yet comprehend.  They also learn why some Civil War soldiers glowed in the dark.

Focus on Revision

Even if they totally bomb an assignment, I assure students that the worst case scenario is that I will help them develop the skills they need to successfully revise the assignment into a successful project. The focus on revision not only lessens the fear of failure but it also supports the concepts of continuous improvement and building on success.


Ironically, as I have taken steps to lessen students’ fear of failure, I have actually raised the expectations and rigor of the courses I teach. By breaking the research process into even smaller steps, I require more research than I have previously expected when I taught processes in larger chunks.

Some Students Still Fail

Even when classes are designed for success, some students will choose failure over engagement. Others will have events from their personal lives take an unrecoverable toll on their academic lives. Others will make bad decisions that lead to failure and (hopefully) future learning.  But, as Davidson argues, we should not design our courses in such a way that guarantee that a certain percentage of our students will fail. Instead, we need to design rigorous courses in which all students could theoretically succeed.

    –Steven L. Berg, PhD

Photo Caption: First failure of the manned Aerodrome, Potomac River, 7 October 1903.

This blog has been cross posted at Etene Sacca-vajjena.



     A colleague of mine presented the acceptance of failure today. This presentation of hers really reached out to me. I began to think, without experiencing failure we are just cutting ourselves short from success. To be successful we need to be aware that it is okay to fail, failing just gets us that much closer to succeeding.  Our generation today is so terrified of the thought of failure, so we stay on a path that we know and feel comfortable in. By doing this we do not push ourselves in ways that we should be, such as trying new things. We as people should not settle, we should always be pushing ourselves. We should not fear that there is a possibility of failure; instead we should tell ourselves that it is acceptable to fail as long as we try our absolute best. If we try our best and experience new and different things that we are not used to, that is not failing. When not trying something and just giving up, that is accepting failure. This kind of failure is not acceptable. There is a big difference between giving your all and trying something new and failing; then not trying at all and just accepting failure. I could not agree more with you Dr. Berg, we should not automatically accept failure instead we should raise our standards. This is a topic that really interests me; I am going to look further into this. No one is perfect; if we didn’t make mistakes in life then we would not be human. Failing is acceptable to a certain extent; the good kind of failure sets us up for success. 


I agree with the false rule bricks, it helps a mind think and expand. Not having the standard rule brick shows how much one can think. The mind can take you many places. I like the concept of just showing up and doing the homework you will pass. It gets a little stress off you shoulders. At first when I was told to pick any topic you usually you think it has to do with something that relates to one thing, not in this case. With having a class set up like this it gives you room to pick anything you want to talk about. In cases with the papers you could have picked anything that you were interested in and or something you knew nothing about but you wanted to learn more. I agree with all of the things you had said in this blog. The trophy part reminds me of how nowadays if a kid is on a sport team and gets a trophy even when they were sitting and not in the game or lost the game. It doesn’t give the kids the motivation to do well. It gives them an excuse to just expect good out of everything they do. In this case it can lead them to fail later and life because they were handed it instead of working for it.


In recent past months I had the experience which descirbed above. I must admit, I have been pushed hard before in the past, but in recent learning experiences, I have never been so academically challenged, I wouldn't say that I haven't been challenged like this before, but I would definitely say that I have never been this challenged and learned from it as well as I have. The two are very different but with relating intentions. I agee on the idea of not giving the students full disclosue on the homework assignment. It allows them to think for themselves and makes it so the students need to create the best work that they possible can due to the fact that they dont know what the teacher may be expecting. I call this "Relentless Expectations".