Fear of Failure, Learned Helplessness, and Devaluation in Secondary Education

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Overview of Topic:
Test after test, teachers grade blank or barely attempted free response and short answer questions. When confronted and prompted, students are able to supply at least partial answers. So why did students not give an honest attempt to answer the question? A common explanation spoken by students is a fear of being wrong, more commonly known in the literature as Fear of Failure. Studies show that a fear of failure is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, proving the old adage, if you look down you fall down. Educators are seeing the impacts of this fear in secondary education as well as post-secondary education (Cox, 2009). Bartels and Herman presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science explaining that students who “fear failure tend to underutilize cognitive strategies (e.g., metacognitive strategies) that would enhance academic performance and overutilize cognitive strategies (e.g., self-handicapping) that increase the odds of failure” (Bartels, Herman, 2011). Self-handicapping is a method to reduce shame and protect self-esteem by not placing blame on lack of ability, but on an obstacle (Bartels, Herman, 2011); Self-handicapping is displayed by high school and college students in a variety of manners such as “not participating in classroom discussions, avoiding conversations with the professor — whether inside or outside the classroom — or choosing not to attend class sessions” (Cox, 2009). Worse still are those students with learned helplessness; students who “have given up to the point of not even trying to avoid failure. These students are generally disengaged from tasks and display a helpless pattern of motivation” (Martin, Marsh, 2003). Students outside the United States are experiencing similar pressures to succeed in school and face similar anxieties, and lack of control, as American students (Jackson, 2010).


Stress and anxiety runs high for almost all students as they try to navigate social constructs, new content, and additional responsibility, such as relationships with peers, parents, and teachers, standardized testing, time management etc. Stress is often seen as a driving force behind initial feelings of inadequacy, which can quickly escalate to underachievement and a lack of resilience. Is it right to remove stress as much as possible from education and the lives of students? Almost all jobs are wrought with stress, as are many aspects of the adult world. Australian psychologists Martin and Marsh argue that a fear of failure can be a friend to some students and a foe to others (Martin, Marsh, 2003). A subset of students are driven by a fear of failure “to achieve and persist in the face of challenge and adversity…[even though] it also renders them vulnerable to setback, takes them on a roller-coaster ride of emotional ups and downs, and renders the journey to success somewhat difficult and uncertain” (Martin, Marsh, 2003). Students driven by fear of failure often strive to over achieve not for the love of learning or pride in themselves, but to boost low self-esteem. If these students “do not succeed, failure is seen as proof of suspected incompetence and this increases the risk of falling into the … more counter-productive form of failure avoidance: self-protection” (Martin, Marsh, 2003). Fear of failure, while possibly a driving force for some students, is typically not positive and can lead to a dislike of education and reduced motivation So how do educators help students believe in their abilities, feel in control, and value what is being taught enough to continue their education on their own? And is it really a fear of failure that is driving students’ to not perform and project a lackadaisical attitude about school? Teacher observations and reports seem contrary to the research.

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Trend or Issue:
Fear of failure is an issue discussed in secondary education research that is in a few aspects also qualifies as a trend. For the purposes of this topic, issue is defined as a matter or question that is in dispute, and trend is defined as something showing a tendency to follow a general direction, but can veer into new directions (The American Heritage Dictionary). As stated in the overview, fear of failure is a growing issue in education according to the literature. Students face increased pressure due to standardized testing, parental and teacher expectations, as well as societal demand. Some argue that the “fear of failure begins in the teacher” (Wong n.d.). Initially, “students try to do well in school primarily to make other people happy. They’re afraid of doing badly because they worry about disappointing their parents and teachers” (Wong n.d.). Since grades are a way of measuring both students and teachers, and grades are coming from the teachers, some students feel out of control, leading to learned helplessness. This learned helplessness can trend through their educational career.

In addition to feeling out of control, students are viewing failure as an inescapable rut, rather than viewing it as a learning opportunity. Once students have given up, the trend is to not try because the outcome is expected to be the same. To view failure as an opportunity, students need to learn to reflect on their work and take action. In education right now, students “are reviewed on a long-term basis using standardized tests and report cards. This is not effective feedback because it distances students from their results” (Braido et al., 2016). Rather than results being attainable and improvable, they are again seen as another piece out of student control. A possible assessment approach would be to assess students more often, allowing for smaller and more attainable goals to be met more frequently. This would also allow for more regular feedback, supporting students and redirecting them before they are too far behind.

While the research is discussing the pressures and the repercussions on students, many educators do not feel that it is fear of failure leading to learned helplessness, but rather other outside factors contributing to the behavior. One of those factors is poverty. Teachers in low income schools have noted that “many students in poverty struggle with motivation, most often because they already feel defeated and have experienced the cycle of poverty their whole lives” (Sister 2013). Lack of motivation is an issue and quickly becoming a trend seen in classrooms. An English teacher commented on her blog that this trend is developing “from a new trend in education, which boils down to the sequence of "I do, We do, You do." In essence, the ‘instructional method’ is a version of ‘gradual release of responsibility’” (Sister 2013). Students are to learn from the model presented by the teacher, attempt to do similar work together as a class, and then do it on their own. The problem arises when students reach the point where it is time for them to do it on their own. Students exhibit learned helplessness and wait for the answer to be handed to them. But is it fear of failure that is causing this lack of motivation?

Some teachers feel that the issue is not fear of failure, but a lack of application. The trend is an increased number of students lacking ability and underperforming; the blame is not placed on the students, but the teachers. David Chapman, the science department head at Marion County High School, states, “kids come to us without the necessary background to do the higher calculations in the sciences. It might have been they were never taught, but more likely they were unable to master the material and were passed along” (Chapman 2016). The logical question stemming from this comment is why were students passed along if they did not understand the material? Chapman feels it is because teachers know if they fail students they will have to teach the same student again next year. He feels that students do not fear failure at all, they just do not care. His reasoning ties back to poverty. Many of these students are parenting themselves at home and have little educational support. Students many not be leaving tests blank due to embarrassment, but because they “simply have no clue” (Chapman 2016). Chapman has been teaching for twenty six years. He stated in the interview that when he first started teaching, teachers had respect. Students, even low achievers, feared failing because it meant it was the student’s own fault. The trend that has developed is a greater pressure placed on teachers and less on students. Education has seen a digression away from deadlines and expectations. Students are not held accountable and teachers are forced to “drop expectations and standards to raise kids up” (Chapman 2016).


The testing coordinator at Marion County High School also believes there to be an increasing issue with student’s lack of effort and learned helplessness, but again does not feel the issue stems from a fear of failure. Rather than a fear of disappointing parents or teachers, students now have a fear of fitting in to the school society. Students put on a “persona that they are big and bad and do not care” (Testing coordinator 2016). She feels this way because students will perform alone, when not in front of the class. She argues that teachers experience more fear of failure than the students, and because of this teachers give more chances, teach to the standards, and do not teach work ethic. Teachers get questioned and evaluated for student performance while “students get more slack every year” (Testing Coordinator, 2016). Teachers’ fear of failure stems from not being able to reach students, manage the classroom appropriately, meet all the standards by the end of the course, and have students know enough and value the education they are receiving to perform well on end of course assessments. Student performance on these assessments is incorporated in teacher evaluations, and may eventually be tied to teacher pay. She comments that “students have lost limits and boundaries because there are no consequences for not working” (Testing Coordinator 2016). Teachers feel pressured to allow students to make up late work at any point in the nine-weeks. With credit recovery now a possibility, students can fail the semester class, do five to ten hours worth of work and gain credit, rather than working the whole semester like other peers. Teachers also feel pressured to curve so that there are a smaller percentage of students failing, even if some students do not understand the material and should not be passed on. There is clearly a tendency for students to display learned helplessness and get away with it, leading to the issue of students lacking the necessary prerequisite knowledge to be successful mastering upper level course material. Whether the issue used to be a fear of failure, the issue presenting itself now is a culture that supports students’ lack of motivation to overcome difficulties and setbacks. The learned helplessness that is now a staple in most general education classrooms is leading to a pattern of underprepared students graduating into a society that is demanding more in order to be career ready.


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Annotated Bibliography
Bartels, J. M., & Herman, W. E. (2011, May 28). Fear of Failure, Self-Handicapping, and Negative Emotions in Response to Failure. Retrieved May 18, 2016, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED524320.pdf
This article defines fear of failure and self-handicapping, and how one stems from the other as a way of protecting one’s self-image.

Braido, L., Gulley, E., Guo, L., Malloy, A., Nkansah-Amankra, A., Welch, A., & Barth, R. (2016). Facing Failure and Breeding Success. Retrieved May 22, 2016, from http://nytimesineducation.com/spotlight/facing-failure-and-breeding-success/
This New York Times article focuses on how to eliminate failure in order to keep students motivated and challenging themselves. It argues that students should have more attainable feedback and learn from their failures rather than fear them. The article uses West Point’s ability to make extraordinary officers and leaders as an example.

Chapman, David. Personal communication. May 20, 2016.
David Chapman is head of the science department at Marion County high school. I interviewed him regarding his 26 years of teaching and what he has seen as far as fear of failure, learned helplessness, lack of motivation, and teaching as a respected career.

Cox, R. D. (2009). Promoting Success by Addressing Students' Fear of Failure. Community College Review, 37(1). Retrieved May 18, 2016.
This article examined students in a college composition class. It discusses the fear of failing college and how student behavior is effected by their fear to the point of undermining their own college and career goals.

Jackson, C. (2010). Fear in education. Educational Review, 62(1), 39-52. doi:10.1080/00131910903469544
This article discusses fear of academic failure in the UK and examines the cognitive and emotional components associated with fear of failure.

Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2003). Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe? Australian Psychologist, 38(1), 31-38. doi:10.1080/00050060310001706997
This paper outlines fear of failure in two different ways: over striving and self-protection. The authors argue that fear of failure can both motivate students or lead to learned helplessness, but in either case the student is working to protect their self-esteem and self-image.

Sister, S. (2013, November 8). Helping the Helpless [Web log post]. Retrieved May 23, 2016, from http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2013/11/8/1253504/-Helping-the-Helpless
Shakespeare’s Sister is a teacher writing under a nom de plume. She discusses how poverty influences learned helplessness and student motivation in her English class. She reflects on the “I do. We do. You do.” teaching method.

Testing Coordinator. Personal communication. May 20, 2016.
I interview a testing coordinator in a rural Georgia school. She wishes to remain unnamed. She discussed the persona students put on in front of their friends and that teachers experience more fear of failure than students.

Wong, D. (n.d.). How Students Can Overcome Their Fear Of Failure. Retrieved May 22, 2016, from http://personalexcellence.co/blog/overcome-fear-of-failure-student/
This blog had Wong do a guest post on where Fear of Failure starts and how to overcome fear of failure. He argues that fear of failure begins with the teacher. He goes on to list how fear of failure develops and how to help students overcome it.

issue. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Retrieved May 22, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/issue

trend. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Retrieved May 22, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/issue