Do Further and Higher Education Students Expect To Fail Before They Succeed?

Picture by: QuotesValley (2017).

In modern-day society students expect to fail before they succeed, which induces the potential fear over marked assessments. This is coming to be a bigger problem amongst students because they almost create a personal bubble of fear-like emotions and over-work themselves to the point that they have no social life and their anxiety levels can develop from calm to extreme.


When a student enters a social situation certain beliefs and assumptions are triggered, which are quite absolute in quality;

“If I do not give the right answer, I will fail.”

These beliefs can originate in earlier life experiences, which have oriented the person to perceive certain situations as a threat to self-esteem and reinforces beliefs about personal inadequacy. What a lot of students do not realise, is that failure is needed to succeed in life. Sometimes they have to take a few knocks back to take many strides forward and thus, it is through failure that we learn success.

There are many famous people who did not do well in education but have still made a positive name for themselves and are now role-models for the younger generation. It is not the grade that matters at the end of the day. It is the students motivation and determination that will be noticed. 

Social Performance:

Social performance situations are commonly encountered by students in further and higher education; lectures, group projects, seminars, employment interviews and work experience placements. They are expected to speak in front of large groups of unfamiliar people and sometimes friends, to discuss their subject in the presence of knowledgeable authoritarian figures (usually the lecturer).

The assessment of student presentations or seminars contributes to degree grading and there is an expectation from employers that graduates will possess good interpersonal skills. Due to this expectation, most students are lead to persistent anxiety and reduced engagement in learning.

A Potential Obsession in Straight ‘A’ Students?

Individuals who have always received higher predicted grades from primary school to further education, will find that they always strive high. However, this brings about a few points that could bring down students self-esteem, such as:

1) Their drive for success might turn into the fear of failure, which might make them afraid of trying new things and experimenting like they used to because they have become too comfortable with the security of formulaic solutions.

2) They may stop being creative or thinking outside of the box with assessments, learning only to regurgitate meaningless data and facts like a parrot.

3) Students may never truly be happy because happiness in the simple equation of reality minus expectations (happiness = reality – expectations) and those expectations can skyrocket when they are high achieving students.

4) They may only see life in black and white when in reality, nothing is ever so straightforward and obstacles will be needed to overcome.

5) Students are in a bubble that they will eventually need to leave and when they enter ‘the real world’ their skills will be limited to those that can only be validated on an academic level.

6) Students might become quite narcissistic as they seek confirmation for their self-worth from the attention they receive from good grades. This narcissism might make them feel entitled to things that they are not.

7) The single most valuable thing is that high achievers possess is not their grades, but their competitive attitude and an excellent work ethic, and that their straight A’s are merely a consequence of these things. 

How Does Fear Affect Higher Education Students?

Students can feel a lot of pressure to perform well in a classroom setting. Not only in further education, but in higher education as well. This pressure can come from parents and lecturers, usually with the justification that they need good grades to succeed in life. Nobody likes to fail, however sometimes, failure is needed to improve on personal performance. Unfortunately, failure can often have an effect on how a student learns and it is not always a good thing depending on how it is handled:

1) The Goal of Failure Avoidance:

Scientists from several universities conducted a study to see how fear of failure drove students to behave. The results of the study was published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Researched found from the results that students had many different goals and answers ranged from students wanting to completely master their area of expertise to avoiding doing worse than other students. However, the goals did not matter when it came to the fear of failing. The analysis found that students who had a fear of failing adopted learning as a way to stroke their own ego and to prove that they were superior to their peers. They did not learn because it was in their best interest or because they enjoyed it. The goal was adopted because it was a form of validation. Scientists also found that students are less likely to adopt effective learning strategies but instead, that they are more likely to cheat.

2) A Lack of Learning Motivation:

The analysis from the study showed some pretty interesting findings about how students perspective can affect their behaviours and learning styles. It also mentions how students should portray learning and failure in general. It has been found that very high standards and criticisms from both parents and lecturers result in increased levels in the fear of failure and that they must be more sensitive on how they evaluate young people’s competence. It also illuminates the fact that what lecturers tell young people is of importance.

The Lead Researcher, Dr Michou, said:

“When lecturers ask why young people are learning something, the answer can affect their motivation. Lecturers and parents must be more sensitive to the rational they provide to young people to adopt a common goal or engage in activity. Suggesting students improve their skills for their own enjoyment and development is much more beneficial than suggesting them to improve their skills in order to prove themselves.”

3) Higher Pressure:

Usually the rationale provided for students is that ‘good grades’ can get them into competitive universities. They need to go to a good university so that they can land a high paying and more prestigious career. A better career can indicate how successful a student is, which equates to a higher social standing. Naturally, this puts a lot of pressure on young adults within the academic environment. A study in 2012 – published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General – found that pressure could have a negative effect on learning. In several experiments, young people were told that learning was difficult. Those people were shown to perform better on tests than those that did not receive the intervention beforehand. This was most likely due to a confidence boost received when their fear of failure was reduced. While this may only be a temporary boost, it is another piece of evidence that shows perspective has an effect on performance and learning.

The Solution = The Right Motivation:

It is pretty easy to see how young people might feel the need to prove themselves to their lecturers and peers. This message is being reinforced with the current trend of increased testing. A message that carries with it the pressure to succeed. Both further and higher education students should not fear learning. They also should not fear making mistakes! It would be a huge improvement instead of fearing it, that they embraced it. It sounds a little crazy, but is it really that far fetched? Getting something wrong should not necessarily be seen as a sign of failure. It should simply be recognised as a sign of learning, and learning is a good thing!

Student ‘Failure Fears’:

It is not primarily failure that young people in education fear. It is the negative consequences that follow the failure, which causes students stress levels to rise. This fear can lead to lowered self-esteem, avoiding challenging task, having a pessimistic outlook and even cheating. See points as below:

1) It could cause extended stress and worsen their mental health.

2) No support may be available from lecturers, peers and family.

3) Students may experience shame and embarrassment from assessment feedback. Example – when everyone in their class pass an assessment and they fail.

4) Students might re-adjust how they see themselves and lack in self-esteem for future assessments.

5) After receiving an assessment grade back, they may have second thoughts about their future.

Ways to Reduce ‘Failure Fears’ Within Further and Higher Education:

Just to recap, failure in itself is not threatening. It is just a source of feedback on your current level. It is the negative consequences that young people think will follow that they fear.

For Students:

Coping With Situations:

There are three ways that you can cope with situations – Avoidant, Emotional and Problem-Focused Strategies. Avoidant is self-explanatory – students avoid a situation or convince themselves that a problem is not the bad (emotion focused). Emotionally focused coping may provide short relief for a situation. Problem focused strategies address the issue head on, allowing the person to make long-term gains. No matter what situation you are faced with, it is important you do not bury your heads in the sand, hoping for the problem to go away. If something is worrying you, then you must find a way to make it better and prevent further stress.

Focus On What You Can Control:

When people focus on things they cannot change, it often makes them nervous. By working with your peers on what you can control, it provides a sense of certainty and confidence, then you will be able to work on grayer areas together. You cannot control what grade you will achieve, but if you focus on your effort, attitude and organisation, you are likely to receive better results.

Embrace the Failure:

In education, sometimes the result can paper over the cracks. Young people often think that a good grade means that everything is good. On the other hand, if a poor result is received, students often feel all doom and gloom. This sort of black and white thinking could lead to stress, anxiety and a fragile self-esteem. Judging yourself on your attitude, effort and what you have learned are better markers and are probably more likely to result in the good grades you so desire. What you need to remember, is that failure is needed to succeed and you should not be afraid of it.

What you need to remember as a whole is that whatever decision you decide to make, it will have consequences. It is the same when you are in the workplace.

For Lecturers:

Reassure Students:

A lot of students both in further and higher education often look at an assessments criteria and worry that they will fail. At the beginning of the year or at the end of a few lessons, just remind students that support is always available and that failure is nothing to be afraid of. Support can be really beneficial to students if lecturers are straight-up and do not give out a sense of false hope. This way, when talking about a specific topic, the student will not feel the full force of pressure (like being hit by a bus) and feedback is not sugar-coated. Some students are usually afraid of below average grades due to the unrealistic expectations their parents have,  however, this is something that could potentially be overcome if you are willing to speak to their parents. 

Try To Lessen The Shame:

The most common fear of failure according to psychologists is that young people feel shame and embarrassment after assessments that they did not do so well on. This is seen in students who do not volunteer an answer to a question in class for fear of looking bad in front of their peers. Trying and failing is not shameful, but instead, a stepping stone to success. This fear can be overcome by creating an environment where failure is not followed by laughter, glaring and embarrassment.

Question Their Fears:

Are their fears irrational and highly unlikely to come true?

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain.

This quote captures perfectly how many students worry about the worst-case scenarios, often for no logical reason. It is good to reassure them that if they have put the hard work in, there is no reason to assume the worst.


Students within further and higher education often stress themselves out to the point that they often need counselling outside of lectures and fear for the worst. This can often be resolved with external support and / or in-classroom support from the students peers and lecturer. As long as students are taught that failure is not something to be feared, then many will go far in their future careers. We all know that no-one likes to fail, but sometimes it is necessary for personal development.

Thank you for reading.

What are your thoughts?


C.R. Eede

I am a graduate of university, with a degree in Applied Animal Studies. Higher education gave me the chance to get actively involved in political and educational issues that had a national effect on students. Therefore, I specialise in Education and Politics within the UK. Whilst animals have nothing to do with writing, I soon became very passionate about the history and trending topics within the UK, so decided to start writing / blogging. As a result this intrigued me into wanting to write professionally.
  • what a beautiful motivational article.. loving it very much

  • Kaitlyn Lo

    The amount of research is astounding, thank you Chelsea!

    • Aha, I think that’s a university habit. I may not produce a lot of articles, because of the long ones with extensive research, aha.
      But, I do reference it at the end just in case people want to do further reading.

      Thank you for your kind words.