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Coping with failure

By Chelsea Hall, 3rd-year Life Sciences student

Have you experienced failure before? I have.

I’ve entered exams feeling confident, only to leave shocked at my own ignorance. I’ve also spent endless hours drafting and perfecting lab reports that were later destroyed by teaching assistants. In the past I viewed these ‘failures’ as a reflection of my own (lack of) ability, but now I try to learn to from my mistakes and put these failures into perspective. In fact, these failures (or probably more accurately, these perceived failures) spurred me on to greater success. Below are some tips and tricks to help you learn how to fail effectively.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap that a negative evaluation accurately reflects your intelligence; that is, failing a test or an assignment means that you’re somehow stupid or unworthy. However, thinking that way is neither effective nor accurate. You’re here because you demonstrated ability in high school; learning at university simply imposes new challenges that can take years of adjustment and skill development to master. Instead of tearing yourself down or obsessing over a bad mark, try to view the experience as a learning experience.

The hardest part for me was to learn to let things go. One of the tricks I learned was to double-check if anything can be done to improve the grade. Maybe you can ask your professor to have a midterm reweighted to increase the worth of a final, or you can talk to a teaching assistant for advice.

Unfortunately, though, in many situations the grade (and its worth) is final — you have to accept the result and simply resolve to do better next time. In this case, take a moment to reflect on what you could have done differently. Did you cram at the last minute instead of spacing your studying over a week or two? Did you dismiss certain concepts because you just didn’t understand them and didn’t think they were testable material? Were you struggling for awhile without seeking extra help? Asking these tough questions is helpful because it helps establish a plan of attack for what can be done next time in order to improve.

Give yourself a little time to feel rotten and grieve the mark, but then make sure to refocus your energy on developing a new plan to tackle this failure and turn it around into something great, like a new study strategy or motivation to talk to a professor. Should you go and get a tutor for a specific course? Is your trouble in time management rather than the actual material? Is there something else in your life inhibiting you from being the best possible student you can be?

Sometimes our failures (or perceived failures) are even more important than our successes, since failures make us snap out of autopilot and take action. There are so many resources on campus, and the school wants us to succeed — so get to know your resources and use them. Your ability in a certain subject area is not fixed; with effort, you can improve. Recognizing that you can further develop your skills may be tough to see, but it’s true.

In conclusion, one of the main predictors of academic success at university is resilience — but resilience is mainly built through experience. It may take some practice, but try to view failure as an opportunity to grow, learn and develop your skills.

Photo courtesy of Rich Brooks under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.