Students fear failure. It’s not just a failing grade many students fear; it can be the fear of not receiving a perfect score each week for all required learning activities. I’ve worked with many doctoral learners who earn less than 100 points for their discussion posts in a previous week and believe they have failed. All they can focus on is the loss of points, even if it just six or eight points. The same holds true for written assignments. A less than perfect grade somehow indicates failure because “they have worked really hard”, “put a lot of effort into the assignment”, and “should be awarded full points”. Some learners may believe I have somehow been excessively critical or nit-picking with my feedback, when it did not meet their expectations.

I attempt to change the narrative from a loss of points to a focus on what was accomplished, and pivot to what needs to still be completed. When possible, I have a conversation like this by phone to convey empathy for my online learners and more importantly, to use this as a teachable moment and discuss the feedback provided. I understand the importance of a grade and what it means to feel you have not measured up in some manner as I was also an online learner and held myself to a very high standard, and I pushed myself to produce what I thought at the time was above-average work. Yet I also knew at the end I was going to receive a degree and what I learned mattered most. For me, I tied my hard work directly to what I was accomplishing and then the grades followed.

However, there were times for me as a former learner, just as there are for my learners now, when earning less than a perfect score is necessary. I tell my learners it would be very easy for me to acknowledge their effort, give them all perfect scores, and pass them along to their next course. But then I would be truly failing them as they would not be receiving genuine or authentic feedback from me. They would never understand where there are areas of development to make, even as minor as a six-point loss would indicate, simply because I did not want to take the time to review their papers in-depth or listen to the sound of their disappointment after receiving their feedback.

What I have learned through time and practice is that students need to fail in order to learn and continue to grow. This failure can be anything from a perceived missing of the mark or receiving less than a perfect score, to actually failing a class. When a learner fails a course, it usually means there is too much going on in their life to manage the required workload, or any other number of life-related possibilities. Regardless of the reason, a complete reset often helps to reprioritize activities and reestablish the reason for obtaining their degree. When learners fail because of a lack of motivation, despite an instructor’s best efforts to keep them engaged, they must determine if they are well-suited for this environment and able to re-engage once again.

Whenever students fail, be it a loss of points, missed expectations, or an inability to complete a course, it provides them with opportunities to learn more about themselves, provided they are willing to look beyond the letter grade and develop a mindset of growth and development. There are strategies an instructor can implement to help encourage their learners to develop this type of disposition towards failure and be better prepared for the next attempt made.

Teaching Personal Accountability

I believe accountability is an important aspect of teaching, no matter what environment you are teaching within. Yet therein also lies the challenge because one of the basic tenets of andragogy or adult learning is the idea adult learners are self-directed and want to be personally involved in their own learning. It would seem learners are responsible enough to enroll in their classes and understand the basic premise of what taking a class should involve.

Yet why then is it so challenging for instructors to have all learners accept they are responsible for their own outcomes? Why do some learners choose to blame everyone but themselves for the outcomes received? Those are questions which may never be answered fully. I cannot answer them from the perspective of teaching online students after 15 years and it may have to do with internal factors which are beyond the scope of anything I or any instructor can control. That is not up to me to assess, as I can only evaluate what I observe within the classroom.

What I do know is I can hold students to a fair standard or expectation of how they are to perform in class, and the higher the standard I hold, the more I expect of myself in return. In other words, if I am expecting my learners to reach for the highest level of writing possible on the scoring guide, then I in turn must ensure I am providing instructional guidance, substantive feedback, and availability for learners to speak with me about their feedback and progress in class. Accountability begins when I set expectations clearly and fairly with learners, and continues when I provide them with the support needed as they make each new attempt.

Strategies to Encourage Growth and Development

When I observe learners struggling, or they are unable to reach their full potential, I am well aware there is a perception within them they may have likely done enough to complete the assignment and they are hoping to “get by” or “earn the maximum points” because of the effort made. It seems there are few learners any longer who can easily accept a less than 100% score without personally believing they have failed in some manner. Since I am aware of this mindset ahead of time, there are strategies I have been using to encourage and nurture a different mindset, one of growth and development. These are strategies you can utilize as well in your teaching practice.

Strategy: Academic Preparedness

The issue of academic under-preparedness is something my colleagues and I discuss quite frequently, and I am certain it may be an issue you have addressed yourself as well, especially if you are an online educator. When students begin an online program, they are going to have a vast difference among themselves as to the skills they already possess, or need assistance with, regardless of the academic experience they may hold.

From time management to writing and productivity skills, every student is going to need help in some area, and some may need continued assistance throughout their entire degree program. The art of academic writing can be challenging to master, especially something such as APA formatting. What an instructor can do is to help address some issues and refer students to the proper resources. It’s a matter of encouraging students to make mistakes until they learn the correct methods.

Strategy: Managing Outcomes, Not Expectations

As a doctoral student myself, I remember receiving scores that were less than 100% and how that felt, because I tended to be a perfectionist who set high standards for myself. Yet my approach with my instructors was not to tell them I was outraged I had lost a few points, or they had been unfair, I sought out answers. I wanted to know how I could improve the next time and the areas I could improve upon. For my learners today, I find myself faced with the expectations first, instead of questions about the outcomes.

The expectation is to receive perfect scores, which I do not address. What I talk about is the loss of a few points and how this is an indicator of something more to learn. Then I spend time reviewing the paper and/or the discussion posts in detail, along with the scoring guide, and the feedback provided. In other words, I manage the outcomes. Once I can have a conversation with my learners about the areas in which they excelled (the majority of points earned), and the areas of development (the few points missed), they often have a different view.

Strategy: Encourage Students to Try Harder, Even if They Might Fail

My last degree was conferred almost 10 years to the date and the classes I remember the most were those in which I received feedback that nudged me along and challenged me to perform better. I felt I could try to perform my best and test my ideas, thoughts, and transform my work to the point I could almost fail if I needed to. That’s how supported I felt. In reality I knew I likely wouldn’t fail; however, it was such a safe and supportive environment I believed I could test out new ideas and approaches to projects. I was so motivated by those instructors, I wanted to teach for that school and now 10 years later, here I am teaching at the same school.

Now with my learners, I want them to make their best effort as well. They may not have the best writing skills and yet, I do not want for them to believe this should ever be a reason for not trying to write a paper or post a discussion response. When I post their feedback video, I will relay to them how I am able to understand what it is they are conveying, as to the general message, and then after discussing the strengths of their work, I’ll address what they can continue to work on. If I can continue to be supportive, they will make another attempt, even if there is a chance of failing. Even if a learner fails the assignment completely, I always assure them this is not the end-game or final point in time. They always have something more to learn and can use this to create a much better next written paper.

Why Students Must Fail to Succeed

Consider a student who is enrolled in a class and receives a “good job” and a 100% score on every written assignment and discussion requirement. What has this student learned? If the student learned anything, it was from their own studies and discussions. But from their involvement with the instructor, it was minimal. Now consider a different scenario in which an instructor provides extensive feedback and the scores range from 88% to 100% throughout the term, and the student believes there has been many failures which have occurred. What has this student learned? This student has been presented with a much greater opportunity to learn because there have been outcomes not met, which are indicators of continued development needed. Will this student recognize the need for development? Only if the instructor has nurtured a mindset and disposition that is open to continued growth. Every student needs this form of “failing” in order to succeed. It is not a matter of failing to meet expectations, or failing a class in general, it is about receiving accurate and supportive feedback, and learning where development is needed.

Does this help to change how you view failing for your students? Are you providing substantive feedback and support for your students? When you can hold a conversation with your students about outcomes, instead of expectations, you too can transform their disposition about grades and feedback, and perhaps then you will be able to teach them more about personal accountability.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and teacher.

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