October 21, 2015

Embracing Failure

by Shiela Hwe, Pharm.D., PGY1 Community Pharmacy Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

When was the last time someone described a failure as a good thing?

In today’s society there is such a heavy focus on results and quantifying success, that the process of learning often gets ignored. For business owners, the end goal is to earn money. For most students, the measure of success is earning an A in every course.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, has focused much of her research on how a person’s personal view of their personality and intelligence influences motivation. In her research, she describes a person with a “fixed mindset” as someone who assumes that our abilities are innate and unchanging, and success is the confirmation of intelligence.1 The incremental theory describes a person with a “growth mindset” as one who believes that intelligence can be developed, and that failure is necessary and a motivator to improve.1 (See Table 1)  Although “successful” students can can have either a fixed or growth mindset, their personal model influences how they respond to failures.2

Table 1. Characteristics of Fixed and Growth Mindsets.
Fixed Mindset
Growth Mindset
Avoids challenges
Embraces challenges
Gives up easily
Persistent in the face of setbacks
See effort as fruitless or worse
See effort as the path to mastery
Ignore useful negative feedback
Learn from criticism
Feel threatened by the success of others
Find lessons and inspirations in the success of others

When I first stumbled on Dr. Dweck’s research, I found it fascinating. I grew up in a household where education was the number one priority and hard work was the way to achieve success. Failing meant receiving a letter grade that was anything less than an A. The concept of a fixed or growth mindset is relevant to learners of all ages.  There are students who aren’t “challenged” until high school, college, or even graduate school. Personally, I skated through school without much effort. It was not until graduate school when I found myself studying harder and receiving lower grades. I was at a crossroads.  I could have adopted a fixed mindset - the grades I was receiving were an indicator that I was “failing.” (Remember, anything less than an “A” is perceived as a failure!).  Fortunately, I adopted a growth mindset.  I learned that my grades were an indicator that I needed to re-evaluate my study methods.

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The incremental theory sounds great but is there proof that people who adopt a growth mindset are more successful?  In a five-year study, Dweck followed seventh and eighth grade students enrolled in mathematics courses. Once entering the study, students filled out a questionnaire used to classify them as having either a “fixed” or “growth” mindset. Achievement outcomes were based on a combination of exam scores, class participation, and homework. The results showed that students with a “growth mindset” were more likely to believe that working hard was “necessary and effective in achievement” and were less likely to “attribute a potential failure to lack of ability.”2 Two years later, students who had expressed a higher “growth mindset” were outperforming those that believed intelligence was static.2

In a follow-up interventional study, half of the students were taught the incremental theory – in other words, how one’s mindset impacts performance.  The goal was to observe whether this intervention had an effect on motivation. Teachers reported improvements in classroom motivation and previously declining mathematics grades were halted.2 This study showed that changing the beliefs of students about their intelligence helped stimulate enthusiasm and also enhanced academic performance.2

Although these studies focused on elementary school children, the same principles can be applied to adults. In a 2003 study, 128 pre-med Columbia University students taking a General Chemistry course were evaluated based on learning goals. Students with active learning goals (growth mindset) exhibited greater motivation, achieved higher grades, and demonstrated greater improvement over time.3 When faced with a challenging course in which they struggled, students with a growth mindset performed better than those with a fixed mindset.3  However, regardless of their mindset, students who did not struggle with the subject matter excelled in the class.3  Thus mindset seems to be most important when faced with failure.

The good news is that mindsets is not permanent!  Teachers can take steps to help learners view “failure” in a positive light. Here are 5 tips to encourage students to embrace failures:1,2,3,4,5
  • Teach your students about incremental theory.  Studies have shown that students who believe that intelligence is not stagnant, and failure is just a stepping-stone to success generally have more motivation and perform better when faced with difficult situations.
  • Praise wisely.  Praising intelligence or only the outcome orients your learner to a fixed mindset, and encourages the need for constant reassurance. Rather than telling students how smart they are or how well they performed, praise the process. Praise your learner’s persistence and effort too. 
  • Encourage independent learning.  Particularly in experiential education, allow the students to have independence and autonomy to make mistakes and be accountable.  This will service as motivation for continued learning.
  • Take the most common errors and analyze them together, as a class.  By utilizing social cognitive theory to engage your class as a whole, students can identify what problems they are experiencing, and also observe what other students are doing to fix these problems. This also helps the learner feel they are not the only ones having problems, and encourages them to improve with the class.
  • Be specific when identifying mistakes.  Rather than pointing out that your learner answered 5/10 questions incorrectly, discuss what caused these errors. By being able to pinpoint where in the process the mistake happened, students can focus their efforts there the next time.

When we are working with learners, regardless of age, it is important to instill the idea of a “growth mindset.” By teaching your students to process errors or “failures” in a way that leads to improvements in the future, you are setting your learners up to view failures as learning opportunities, and to be equipped with the attitude that promotes learning for life.

  1. Popova, M. Fixed vs growth: The two basic mindsets that shape our lives. BrainPickings. January 29, 2014.  Accessed October 20, 2015.
  2. Blackwell, LS, Trzesniewski, KH, & Dweck, CS. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development 2007; 78: 246–263.
  3. Grant H, Dweck CS. Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. J Pers Soc Psychol, 2003; 85: 541-553.
  4. Dweck, C.  The power of believing that you can improve [Video file]. November 2014.  Accessed October 20, 2015.
  5. Maats, H, O’Brien, K. Teaching students to embrace mistakes. Edutopia. March 20, 2014.  Accessed October 20, 2015.

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