Failure: A Learning Tool

I was raised in an environment that encouraged success and punished failure. Strictly speaking, this meant that I was often grounded or assigned extra chores on the account of having made bad marks at school, or even just not turning in assignments. Having spent the last three years in University crafting my learning techniques and academic skills, I am now a firm believer that the technique of unilaterally punishing for bad marks is a critically-flawed way of success-encouragement.

My experience in primary school will be used as an example because within primary school exists a fairly common way of measuring “success”; grades. Many factors in my young life played into roles such that I wasn’t ever very excited to be at school, and I wasn’t a very good student in general. So I made a habit of doing poorly in school, and it would be a fair characterization to have called me a “C student.” My parents tried to help me change my habits over several semesters by reminding me about my studies and helping me through some things I had difficulties with, but ultimately their efforts did little to help with my grades in school. Because of this, they finally resorted to more disciplinary action; thinking that harsher punishments would result in a stronger motivational force for me to do better.

This is a fantastic idea in theory: kids like to have their privileges, and most of the time reward-based tasks can yield a desired outcome — In this case, better grades. Seems pretty simple, right?

Not in my case.

As mentioned earlier, my shortcomings in the classroom were the result of a myriad of parameters, but a large issue was with learning and comprehension. If I didn’t pay attention in class, the concepts didn’t stick. If the concepts didn’t stick, I couldn’t muscle my way through the homework at home, and my parents and teachers ended up spoon-feeding me on homeworks in order to complete them. Sure, my homework grades were okay, but my exam scores were abysmal. And I didn’t learn much.

So while all this was happening, I started being punished for my bad marks on exams. (Disclaimer: I also sometimes just didn’t even turn assignments in because I didn’t do them and I 95% blame this on pure, adolescent lazyness.) This put me in an adversarial position with my parents and I wasn’t too happy with being punished. So the first couple of punishments motivated me to quit skipping assingments. Chalk one up for my parents, thanks guys! But the comprehension level still sucked and I was still doing poorly on my exams. The punishments continued.

Ultimately, the punishments became a routine event, and I spend most of my school semesters hating school because I would mostly be doing poorly and gounded until christmas and summer breaks, and I was embarassed to be apparently not very smart in school. What I hypothesize was happening with me is that the punishments, while being in completely good spirit, worked as a significant contributing factor to de-motivate me from caring about school.

Fast-forward to me pulling it together a little bit in the tail-end of high school and making it into a local university, I had a bit of a rough time getting into the routine of a university-level academic environment. I encountered a few setbacks and ultimately had to repeat a class, which I consider to be one of the lowest points in my academic career. I was skipping classes, sleeping in, and not studying; it was a product of my habits and I’ve since accepted this.

More importantly, I failed and that failure will always stick with me; whether it be from my transcript or from my subconscious.

One thing that was different about University for me is that my parent’s didn’t have an active feedback role in my life. They didnt’ have access to my grades, and they recieved filtered information from me. If I was doing poorly in school, we didn’t talk much about grades and I told them I was doing okay, but not great. When I failed, I told them. But then, I was beyond the days of grounding and punishments, so what happened?

The next semester rolled around and I was again in this class that had just conqured me. I was sure that it would be easy for me this time because I had seen the material before. Nope. I failed the first midterm. I recieved a lot of great feedback from my professor about what to change, and I made the changes. I also changed my lifestyle and became a real student. But most importantly, I used failure as a tool to motivate me, and I used expectations based on my ability, not on my marks, to motivate me to push foward and ultimately recieve an A in the class.

That many, many semesters ago, and I haven’t had any issues with classes since. Whenever I do poorly with my marks, I enter this thought process in my mind that reminds me what it felt like to battle with failure, or battle with conceptual understanding, and I am reminded that I was able to overcome the downturn by accepting it and using it as a tool to fuel me and move foward.

People are incredibly complex and behavior varies from person to person. I believe in the complexity of Psychology, and the depths of the field is incredible. So with this in mind, I recognize that some of the techniques that I have been critical of are successful in a variety of circumstances. In my circumstance, they were the opposite of successful and weren’t even remotely motivational on the grand scale.

I’m not a parent, and my objective with this piece isn’t to be critical of my parents, so I would like to recognize the hard work that my parents have done in their work of raising me. However, I believe that there is always room for improvement.

If I were to channel my understanding of the struggles I had as a child to a future parent me, I would say this:

Motivate your kids by allowing for them to make you their role model. Build relationships that encourage them wanting to live up to your expectations and be unwaveringly consistent. When — not if — they fail in whatever it is that they do, help them understand what went wrong, and utilize the failure as a tool to motivate toward future success.

Failure isn’t a dirty word, and it’s a natural process that happens all throughout life. What we do with and from our failures defines how effectively we understand the situations around us, and defines the chances for success in the future.

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