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Making the most of a setback

By Isabella Wood on 27 May 2020NSWstaffroomUKstaffroomLeadershipMotivationWellbeing

Failure can be beautiful. But you’ve probably already read that somewhere else, phrased more profoundly. Written in a way that resonated with you in some place my words fail to touch. Maybe you’re drawn to the Zen Buddhist approach to broken ceramics – using gold along the fault lines to render repairs as beautiful as they are strong. Nevertheless, I’m betting the next time you fail at something you won’t turn to the Japanese Philosophy of Kintsugi to mend your bruised ego. (I know I didn’t when my boss took the first draft of this article out at the knees). Because, when it belongs to us, failure isn’t beautiful. It sucks. When it belongs to a teenager? Oh boy, it sucks just that little bit more. Entangled with growing pains (and growing egos), failure as a teenager feels infinitely more personal, not to mention infinitely more melodramatic. Because while we’re constantly learning how to fail, rarely are we taught strategies to rise above our failures.

So, in an age where failing forward and failing better is revered, teaching students how to make the most of a setback may be one of the most important lessons to impart. While stumbling through academic challenges can be incredibly damaging to student motivation and engagement, carefully reframing failure can transform minor setbacks into a driving force for positive change. As such, arming students with the ‘grit’ (Duckworth) to rise above failure, or building their ‘academic buoyancy’ (Martin & Marsh) isn’t just important in terms of their academic success, but will help them succeed well beyond the final school bell.

It is important to enhance academic buoyancy (not just reduce or mitigate risk and adversity) in order to help individuals deal with risk and adversity.
– Professor Andrew Martin (2019, p.5)¹
Professor Andrew Martin

So, how can you teach your students to fail better? We’ve gathered the best strategies from the teaching veterans of our community and experts alike to get you on your way.

Strategies for helping students fail better

1. Managing anxiety

Creating a class environment that reduces shame and embarrassment helps neutralise the fear of failure. Challenging students’ negative self-talk is a good place to start. Help your students to identify cognitive distortions, like an all-or-nothing notion of success and failure. “I failed that quiz, I’ll never pass the exam” becomes “I failed that topic, so now I know what I need to revise for the exam.” Recognising that a low mark can be remedied through a change in approach hands students back control over their learning. This creates the kind of academic buoyancy through which they understand that individual setbacks don’t impact their ability to improve.

2. Building confidence with a growth mindset

For some students, taking a look at the evidence behind a fixed vs growth mindset can be enough to inspire such perseverance. Learning, as Carole Dweck highlights in this Stanford Alumni talk, that if they put in the effort to work through their challenges, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, literally making them smarter over time. Or, as Dweck puts it; “intellectual development is not the natural unfolding of intelligence, but rather the formation of new connections brought about through effort and learning.”

3. Providing positively focused and action-oriented feedback

Show your students how implementing feedback will lead to better results “If you addressed this key issue here, it would have bumped you from a band 4 to a high band 5.” Framing feedback with a “Next time, try...” prefix paves the path to providing actionable steps they can take to strengthen their approach.

4. Praise process, not intelligence

Perfecting process is infinitely more attainable than perfecting intelligence. As Dweck explains “praising students for their intelligence hands them not motivation and resilience but a fixed mindset with all its vulnerability”. While praising process “keeps students focused, not on something called ability that they may or may not have and that magically creates success or failure, but on processes they can all engage in to learn”.

5. Facilitating small wins

If your student has a track record of failure in your subject, set them up with an achievable win. Break down big goals or topics into smaller parts. This is an invaluable tool in not only building confidence but fueling the next victory. Of course, these small wins should be interwoven with zones of proximal development – providing them work they’re almost able to do, with just a little support.

Teaching students to rise stronger from the ashes of failure should be embedded in everyday schooling. Ideally, to make the most of a setback a framework for academic buoyancy should be in place well before the actual setback occurs. However, whenever the opportunity arises, building a student’s capacity to overcome and even benefit from setbacks will empower them to find their own path to success, even if they have to get there the hard way.  


  1. Martin, A.J., & Marsh, H.W. (2019). Investigating the reciprocal relations between academic buoyancy and academic adversity: Evidence for the protective role of academic buoyancy in reducing academic adversity over time. International Journal of Behavioral Development.

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