When you think about what it means for you to be academically successful in college, you might think of it as an “either-or” question. Either you understand the class material or you don’t. Either you complete all of your assignments or you don’t. Either you get good grades on your tests or you don’t.
There are actually more than two outcomes when it comes to your academic performance. It’s not just about success or failure; it’s about whether or not the learning experience was productive. Productive learning experiences are ultimately beneficial to your long-term learning, not just your short-term performance.
It’s easy to assume that all successes are productive and all failures are unproductive, but that’s not the case. Depending on how you approach success and failure, your successes can become unproductive and your failures can end up being productive. The following will help explain things.
Maximizes your performance in the short term and maximizes your learning in the long term.
Example: You study hard for your test and get a good grade, but you still take the time to review the test and make sure you understand every question.
Maximizes your performance in the short term, but does not maximize your learning in the long term.
Example: You cram the night before your test and it works well enough to get you a good grade, but you completely forget the material as soon as the test is over.
Does not maximize your performance in the short term, but maximizes your learning in the long term.
Example: You do poorly on your test, so you go to a tutor for help. You make sure that you learn from your mistakes and understand the material before moving on.
Does not maximize your performance in the short term or your learning in the long term.
Example: You do poorly on your test, but you don’t reach out for help. You give up on trying to understand the material and hope that the next test will be easier.
Let’s focus on productive failure, which is perhaps the most important section of the chart. It’s nearly impossible to be academically perfect, so you’re bound to experience failure once in a while. That’s OK! When you do experience failure, what matters is that you know how to turn that failure into success. As you can see from the example, productive failure requires three key elements: reflection, growth mindset and reaching out for help.
When you experience a failure, your first instinct might be to move on and try to forget about it.That’s probably not going to help you in the long run. If you take the time to reflect on what went wrong and what you could have done differently, you’re much more likely to learn from your mistakes and improve your academic performance.
Growth mindset is also essential. Try to adopt a curious, self compassionate approach and think about what is the next small, productive step you can take. Finally, it’s important to reach out for help when you need it. You don’t have to struggle alone and figure everything out by yourself. Whether it’s office hours, tutors or academic coaching, there are plenty of resources out there for support.
So, if you ever find yourself feeling unsuccessful, remember that you have the power to change things. Failure is just a temporary setback and an important learning experience on your journey to success.
Salazar-Núñez, B., 2020. Productive Failure. University of Colorado, Boulder