Practice Makes Progress: The Failure of Perfect Students

Increasingly, young people are succumbing to perfectionist tendencies – very bright young people are worrying themselves into a frazzle over school work. 

Along with this, I have noticed that the highest rates of test anxiety are among high-achieving students.  These are students who, in day to day situations, can answer any question I throw at them, who will take the initiative to help explain concepts to other students, and who are capable of genuine inquiry and analysis of ideas.  But, when it comes to tests, these same students are bombing them.  Badly!  So what’s getting in their way?  Their fear of failure. 

Within the education system as a whole, so much emphasis has been placed on the importance of the test as the be-all and end-all assessment of students’ learning.   And, that idea of “the big test” determining their grade in a class is driving students to live in fear of, and ultimately do poorly on, tests.  So what can we do?  We need to teach kids that it is okay to fail.

So-called “failure” is only another step on the path to learning.  Instead of looking at a test as the final analysis of kids’ knowledge, why not use it as a way to judge what still needs to be learned?  Weaker areas can be revisited, material can be re-taught, and kids can be given another opportunity to prove what they know. But, the funny thing is, even with knowing they get another chance, kids still fear their tests, and through that fear end up doing worse than they normally would.  Overcoming this fear is an ongoing process, especially if kids come from a traditional schooling environment, and have already developed that fear of tests.

Beyond all of that, consider this – taking tests is a skill, one that needs to be developed over time.  So why are we constantly testing someone on a skill while it is being developed, and then punishing them (with low marks) because they are still working on that skill?  Why not set up situations so that kids can practice how to take a test, without fear of their marks dropping while they learn to do it? 

There is a lot to be said for alternative means of evaluation, and YES!!! use them, embrace them, give kids the chance to show you what they know in the way that is best for them. But, unfortunately, standardized tests are still a reality for the education system, and as long as that is true, students need to learn how to write tests.  But, we can work with kids, giving them to opportunity to learn the skills they need to be successful in those circumstances, without punishing them, and having them live in fear of failing while they are in the learning process. 

Failure isn’t something to be feared, it’s a learning opportunity.  If we can embrace that and make it part of our practices, we can help kids move out of a state of fear, and into one of learning and growth.