How Failure Leads to Success I Oxford Open Learning


    How Failure Leads to Success

    Failure and Success

    These words are dominating the news, following A-Level and GCSE results days. Photos of grinning, successful students and hyped-up headlines about results mean that if you’ve failed your exams, it can feel like the most dreadful outcome. We tend to see failure as the opposite of success. But what if failure, and the way we respond to it, is actually what leads to success?

    As a society, we’re terrified of failure, and as children, we learn to link failure with punishment. I’ll never forget the shame of being held back at lunch-time for getting my sums wrong. We grow up, averse to failure and its unpleasant feelings. Some of us leave school and refuse to look back, not realising that with the right support, we could have succeeded.

    The great news is that, by changing our attitude to failure, we can break this psychological barrier. Failure is an opportunity. It shines an ultraviolet light on our study habits and behaviours, showing us exactly what we need to improve upon.

    Education specialists emphasise the benefits of learning from failure. Pre-testing, where students take a final exam before they’ve been taught any course content at all (and most likely fail the exam), shows how mistakes can increase future success. Our brains benefit from answering wrongly, because they learn to anticipate what’s coming next.

    I failed three exams before starting university, and remember holding my AS results feeling utterly lost. I ended up taking a year out halfway through Sixth Form in order to re-sit my exams. But my failure made me a better student. I was lucky enough to have an individual tutor, who helped me develop proper exam techniques. With the right academic support, you can learn from your failures and become academically more resilient and successful.

    Perhaps you’re discouraged by failure at the moment. Try not to be. Remember that, although failure can feel like the end of the world, it’s actually the start of a new one. It will be a world in which you learn from your mistakes and gain strength and success in striving towards your goals.

    What If I Didn’t Get the Exams Grades I Needed?

    1. Accept your feelings.

    Our instinct is to skate over negative emotions, especially in today’s social media-driven society, where people present only their successes. It’s normal to feel disappointed or frustrated if we don’t achieve what we wanted the first time around.

    2. Make a simple plan.

    Whether you’ve failed your exams or narrowly missed the grades you wanted for GCSE or A-Level, you’ve still got plenty of options. You can decide to retake your exams at a school or college, or via distance learning, if formal education isn’t for you. You could get a part-time job or work experience, while deciding what to do about exams. This would give you a valuable edge over other candidates when it comes to your future career.

    3. You are here, now.

    We can spend a lot of time obsessing about where we could or should be. If you didn’t get the grades you needed for your first-choice university, for example, it can be hard to watch friends getting excited about leaving home. But where you are now – whether you’re thinking about re-taking exams or a taking a total change of direction – is relevant and valuable. Whatever you choose to do now could have a wonderful impact on the rest of your life.

    If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to a brilliant podcast on failure: “How to Fail with Elizabeth Day”. Every week, an interviewee shares their experiences of failure and what they learned from it.


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    Emily Beater is a freelance journalist and copywriter. She has written for the New Statesman, The Guardian, Times Higher Education and BBC News, and has produced content for a range of educational websites and publications. Emily has a genuine love of writing and a passion for using language to explore social and educational issues. She is completing her degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.