Student with head on desk and crumpled piece of paper Photo courtesy of Emertz76

You’re sitting in class eagerly anticipating the return of your latest exam. The professor approaches your desk, hands back your booklet and your heart sinks as you gaze upon the scarlet letter in the top-right-hand corner.

Sound familiar? It’s a feeling most of us have experienced and can still vividly recall. It may also be the wake-up call that got us back on track.

Failure has the potential to offer students significant motivation, so long as it is accompanied with constructive formative feedback. On the other hand, returning an assessment to a student with only a failing letter grade—omitting any corrections, suggestions, or study resources—may cause a boomerang effect resulting in academic capitulation. Upon receiving a failing grade students need to know what went wrong, what is expected of them, and specific steps for improvement.

Researchers at the University of Auckland identify three questions instructor feedback needs to answer for students:

  1. What are my goals for this assignment and class?
  2. How am I currently progressing towards these goals?
  3. What needs to be done to reach these goals?

Many instructors are averse to providing poor or failing grades. They may have a pedagogical opposition, or simply not want to be inundated with emails and office hour visits. A study by Black and William at King’s College London finds this practice to be counterintuitive as it may encourage students to continue coasting by with minimal effort to achieve a passing grade; eventually these students will fail and the stakes will be much more severe. Early intervention may encourage students to reassess and improve their study habits, avoiding a higher stakes failure later in their academic career.

During my university studies there was a professor with a reputation for rewarding students with the grades “they deserved”; stories of students receiving -50% on assignments were not uncommon (the official grades were 0%). However, in addition to the sticker shock, these assessments were returned with pages upon pages of constructive and formative feedback. Students who received them took them to heart, many adjusting their work and study habits to a more serious approach for the remainder of their academic career.

Failure is not the end of the world. In fact for many, it may be a powerful motivator and life lesson. Students may not appreciate it during the moment, but they will thank you for the lesson later.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.