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Encourage and Embrace Failure

Article written by ASC Office of Distance Education Instructional Designer, Jessica Henderson.

Some of the most widely researched motivational theories such as Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and Expectancy-Value Theory have found that competence and the belief in one’s ability to succeed – especially when combined with other key psychological needs such as autonomy, relatedness, and inherent values – are essential components of motivation among learners. Both have been linked to increased effort and higher overall performance among students. Creating a course structure that encourages and embraces students’ mistakes, rather than allowing those mistakes and failures to become roadblocks towards progress and continued learning, is a vital strategy that can support students’ self-efficacy and ability expectations.

Jane McGonigal, a renowned game designer and author whose work is founded on psychological and motivational principles such as these asserts, “No gamer will play a game if the gamer believes that he or she is doomed to lose, or fail, or be terrible at it forever.”[1] In the same way, if students believe that they are destined to fail during the early stages of a course, they are less likely to continue to put forth effort or to remain engaged in the course material, which can have severe impacts on their overall performance. A major part of learning happens during moments of failure, and by allowing students the chance to recover from their mistakes, instead of imposing an environment that is all or nothing, they are more apt to reflect upon and adapt their own approaches to learning, to grow more curious about and become more invested in the course material, and to explore other methods and strategies that can help them to increase their overall mastery.

Here are a few design strategies that can be included in a course in order to help reduce students’ fear of failure and support their competence and ability beliefs:

Allowing students to resubmit an assignment is one common and simple way to reduce the fear of failure as it gives students a chance, not only to improve their score, but to cultivate their understanding of current concepts before moving on to the next – likely more challenging – idea or theme. Resubmission of assignments can mean that students are asked to self-correct and focus only on the areas where they made mistakes or the specific areas that need improvement, or it can mean that students have the opportunity to completely redo the assignment from start to finish and approach the task in a new way.

High-stakes assignments that are not supported by several low-stakes assignments and opportunities for practice can have “negative consequences, especially in areas involving persistence and quality of learning,” as psychologists Richard Ryan and Kirk Brown have found in their study around high-stakes testing reforms in the United States.[2] Rather than focusing their efforts on mastering the material and meeting learning goals, students confronted primarily with high-stakes assignments may instead be more inclined to look for shortcuts to ensure that one highly-valued assignment does not unravel their entire performance in a course. One way to help reduce such anxieties and further support students’ overall sense of competence is to incorporate several low-stakes assignments that provide students with ample practice and useful feedback. In addition, incorporating scaffolding strategies that chunk higher-stakes assignments into several smaller ones that gradually increase in difficulty allow students to still feel challenged, but not in such a way that the challenge feels insurmountable. 

A level up grading scheme allows students to earn points based on their efforts, rather than lose points due to an inability to maintain perfection. Instead of starting with a grade of 100%, in a level up grading scheme students all begin with zero points and earn points by completing a variety of assignments. For more details this particular strategy, be sure to visit our Level Up Grading Scheme resource.

LifeFlex Scheduling is a term coined by an instructor at NC State during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such an approach permits students a one-week extension with no questions asked, as long as students inform the instructor in advance of their need for an extension. Along similar lines, softening the tone of the course syllabus around due dates while providing rationale for their existence, but minimizing the consequences of a missed deadline, can also help ease students’ anxieties. Carlos Goller, an Associate Teaching Professor of Biotechnology at NC State, refers to his course deadlines as “suggested deadlines” as he finds that “students are able to do work they are proud of when they do it in a timeframe that allows them to devote the time necessary. Students are also less likely to completely give up on the course and ‘disappear’ after missing deadlines when they know that they still have the option to complete the work for full credit.”[3] Flexible deadline strategies such as these can help ease students’ trepidations, not only in regards to tasks that pertain directly to the learning environment, but also those that may result from situations at home or in other environments outside of school.

Mastery Paths offer students additional ways to demonstrate their understanding of the material or concept and improve their mastery over a given topic before moving on to the next, more challenging element in a course. If students perform poorly on a given task or do not reach a certain level of achievement, they are required to revisit the material and complete another assignment or set of assignments on the same topic that allow them to demonstrate their knowledge in a different way. Mastery paths, as the name invokes, aim to encourage mastery of a topic, rather than emphasizing high or low performance. The Canvas LMS contains a Mastery Paths tool that makes it easy to create a variety of learning pathways linked to course assignments. For more details about its use and how to set up and implement Mastery Paths in CarmenCanvas be sure to visit our useful tools resource on Mastery Paths.

A course design that implements strategies similar to the ones referenced above encourages students to explore concepts and ideas more fully. If students are given the opportunity to return to the materials a second or a third time to recover from previous mistakes, they may discover new strategies and approaches to learning, or they may find a better solution for understanding a problem and how to approach it. Perhaps most importantly, in order for such strategies to work as intended, the general mindset around student failure needs to change. That change begins with facilitation that shifts focus away from the valuation of punitive responses to student failure and towards an environment that reframes student error as a productive and important step in the learning process.


[1] Jane McGonigal, “Position Statement: I’m Not Playful, I’m Gameful,” in The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications, ed. Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding (The MIT Press, 2015), 655.

[2] Richard M. Ryan and Kirk W. Brown, “Legislating Competence: High-Stakes Testing Policies and Their Relations with Psychological Theories and Research,” in Handbook of Competence and Motivation, ed. A.J. Elliot and C.S. Dweck (Guilford Publications, 2005): 354-72.

[3] Jill Anderson, “Pandemic Perils of Wisdom: Online Teaching Takeaways from the 2020-21 Academic Year,” Delta News, April 23, 2021, https://delta.ncsu.edu/news/2021/04/23/pandemic-pearls-of-wisdom-online-teaching-takeaways-from-the-2020-21-academic-year/.