“We shouldn’t let fear of failure hold us back, anymore than we should let fear of falling keep us from walking.”

Have you ever been so afraid of failing at something that you decided not to try it at all? Or has a fear of failure meant that, subconsciously, you have undermined your own efforts to avoid the possibility of a greater failure?

Many of us have probably experienced this at one time or another. The fear of failing can be immobilizing – it can cause us to do nothing, and therefore resist moving forward. But when we allow fear to stop our forward progress in life, we’re likely to miss some great opportunities along the way. But to understand the causes of ‘fear of failure’, we first need to understand what ‘failure’ actually means.

We all have different definitions of failure, simply because we all have different benchmarks, values, and belief systems. A failure to one person might simply be a great learning experience for someone else.

Many of us are afraid of failing, at least some of the time. But fear of failure (also called “atychiphobia”) is when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.

Fear of failure can be linked to many causes. For instance within education, having uninspiring, critical or unsupportive teachers is a cause often given by some students. However, this understanding may actually be more of a judgement on the education system as a whole rather than an individual teacher or lecturer. An education system based upon continual assessment throughout a child’s learning journey can develop an unhealthy focus on achieving successful marks; this combined with an institutions requirement to post high grades to be recognised as being a successful school or college can easily result in a skewed understanding of the process of learning.

As a result many students arrive at university today never having truly experienced failure within an education environment. The demands of an academically vigorous university course can therefore become an intimidating environment in which ‘failure’ is a possibility and may be seen as an important part of a challenging learning experience by the university. Of course the student will not actually have failed and failure is an incorrect word to describe the response to an academic outcome but having come from a process in which high marks are expected and routinely given, a low mark is seen as a catastrophic outcome by many.

Fear of failure often shows itself in these ways:

  • A reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.
  • Self-sabotage – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety, or a failure to follow through with goals.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence – commonly using negative statements such as “I’ll never be good enough,” “I can’t do this” or “I’m not smart enough.”
  • Perfectionism – A willingness to try only those things that they know they’ll finish perfectly and successfully.

We can choose to see failure as “the end of the world,” or as proof of just how inadequate we are. Or, we can look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is. Every time we fail at something, we can choose to look for the lesson we’re meant to learn. These lessons are very important; they’re how we grow, and how we keep from making the same mistake again and again. Failures stop us only if we let them.

Most of us will stumble and fall in life. Doors will get slammed in our faces, and we might make some bad decisions but it is our role as educators to provide the context for failure and give permission to students to fail for perhaps the first time in their educational experience.


No Marks! No Failure!

When I first delivered a #ConnectedClasses session I had to shoe horn it into an existing taught module. For this reason it could not be a marked element as for this to happen it would have had to pass through a PCAP process. On explaining this to my students I was met with confused faces, their expectation of being in a lecture was to create work that would be marked. However, confusion soon became relief as the fear of failure was removed. How can you fail at something that is not being judged?

The resulting student engagement was therefore without fear or expectation. They were willing to enter into the spirit of the process with a sense of adventure rather open to wherever the sessions took them. An interesting outcome from these unmarked sessions within the module was the impact the #ConnectedClasses had on their marked work.

The level of research was much higher than in previous module runs and their understanding of what the module required from them was both higher and more sophisticated. This growth in their learning capacity was reflected in a rise by one whole grade in their overall marks.