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Normalizing failure in academic settings

How I’ve learned to understand my failures as lessons

<p>Yasmin Teixeira is a Life columnist for The Cavalier Daily.</p>

Yasmin Teixeira is a Life columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

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We all fail — it’s inevitable. However, it took me a long time to come to terms with this truth, particularly in the academic setting. I just couldn’t fathom the idea of possibly failing to reach the high academic standards I’ve always seemed to meet.

So when one C in my History of London class disrupted the sea of As during my first semester of college, I was devastated. At the time, I figured I would never recover from this —  my transcript was permanently tainted. I was disappointed because up until this point I had only known myself to get As. While a C is passing, I thought I had monumentally failed myself as a student and as a person.

This grade can be primarily attributed to poor time management skills, as I had three midterm essays due on the same night, and I prioritized the other two classes at the expense of this one. I also took this course during a challenging and pivotal time — I was trying to navigate the transition from high school to college while studying abroad through the University's London First program. At the time, I chose to justify my grade by using these defenses. But shouldn’t it be acceptable to get Cs anyway? Why did I feel the need to justify my grade? 

Cs are extremely stigmatized — this grade is considered to be a poor reflection on one’s academic performance when a C is in fact passing. We all want to do well academically, but there’s an immense amount of pressure to always excel that can be mentally and emotionally draining. The menacing nature of failure always exists at the forefront of our educational experiences. Ambition and the desire to succeed is replaced with a fear of failure. 

The pandemic highlighted this issue when students were afraid to accept credit or no credit for a class rather than taking a letter grade. Even in the face of hardship and stress brought on by a pandemic, students felt that a “CR” on their transcript would be frowned upon as it was quickly equated to a C.

I’ve primarily focused on grades as a measure of academic success or failure because they’re a seemingly objective method of comparison. However grades are often decontextualized and therefore an inaccurate representation of one’s academic abilities. A simple letter doesn’t take into account other factors, such as mental health and family life that also affect one’s grades.

I’ve also focused on what I’ve known to be considered failures throughout my education that I’ve experienced — I don’t believe receiving a C in a class is a failure, but it’s often considered to be one. Other examples of perceived failures in academic environments include lacking leadership or internship positions or consistently struggling in a class. I’m not advocating for a lack of drive or that Cs should be the universal goal, but rather, that it should be okay if it does happen. More importantly, you shouldn’t punish yourself if you feel like you’ve failed.

It’s so embedded into our psyches that we should equate our self-worth to our grades. I’ve always been fixated on my grades, but I no longer want to be. We often compare ourselves to others, and it’s detrimental to one’s self-esteem. It lends itself to a lack of passion and motivation to study subjects or take classes you enjoy. We often have to ignore this in order to continue pushing forward since we need to keep up with what others are doing.

It’s undeniable that we’re driven by the looming threat of failure — it’s a symptom of a highly competitive university atmosphere. I don’t believe it can be entirely eliminated either, but one can make small strides to undo this pervasive mindset.

Personally, I strive to engage with the ideas I’m learning in every class. I’m taking classes that I’m genuinely interested in to encourage myself to learn authentically. In this sense, I’m trying to prioritize myself in my academic journey. For example, I took a Media Studies course on social movements entitled Race, Protest and the Media, and it was a very gratifying experience. I’m passionate about social justice and therefore wanted to learn more about it — it even led me to minor in Public Policy.

Taking classes to learn has made it easier to distance myself from the mindset that bad grades equate to failure. Failure is an integral part of the learning process. This also extends to the major or minor mistakes we make in our personal lives. The overarching takeaway from my experience with my first C in a class is that I should not see this “failure” as a label, but as a lesson of growth for me. 

It’s a lesson that can be different for everyone. For me, I’ve taken note to work on my time management skills and plan ahead, especially during times when I feel particularly overwhelmed. Generally, these lessons can serve to help us carve out our own standards of success and personal achievement — and to reframe our failures as lessons. It’s important to share our learning processes and normalize them to build a more nurturing academic community.

Yasmin Teixeira is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at