Failure Syndrome Students. ERIC Digest.
by Brophy, Jere
"Failure syndrome" is one of several terms that teachers commonly use
(others include "low self-concept," "defeated," and "frustrated") to describe
students who approach assignments with very low expectations of success
and who tend to give up at early signs of difficulty. Psychologists have
described this phenomenon as "learned helplessness," a slightly more technical
definition but referring to a similar pattern of behavior. Unlike students
of limited ability, who often fail despite their best efforts, failure
syndrome students often fail needlessly because they do not invest their
best efforts--they begin tasks half-heartedly and simply give up when they
encounter difficulty. This Digest delineates the nature of the problem,
suggests strategies for coping with failure syndrome students, and discusses
how teachers can help.
WHO ARE FAILURE SYNDROME STUDENTS?
Some students, especially in the early grades, show failure syndrome
tendencies as part of larger patterns of emotional immaturity (for example,
low frustration tolerance or avoidance, inhibition, or adult dependency
as reactions to stress). They may focus more on dependency-related desires
for attention from the teacher than on trying to learn what an academic
activity is designed to teach. This pattern may be a defense mechanism
exhibited by some children who feel unable to compete with successful siblings,
who lack confidence in their own abilities, or who have acquired failure
expectations from their parents or teachers. Parents or teachers may communicate
low expectations through a variety of direct and indirect means, especially
to students who have been assigned labels such as "learning impaired."
Most failure syndrome symptoms, however, develop through social learning
mechanisms centered around experiences with failure. Most children begin
school with enthusiasm, but over time many find the experience anxiety-provoking
and psychologically threatening. Many children find it difficult to have
their performance monitored in classrooms where failure carries the danger
of public humiliation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that some students, especially those
who have experienced a continuing history of failure or a recent cycle
of failure, begin to believe that they lack the ability to succeed. Eventually
such students abandon serious attempts to master tasks and begin to concentrate
instead on preserving their self-esteem in their own eyes and their reputations
in the eyes of others (Ames, 1987; Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988).
WHAT STRATEGIES HELP FAILURE SYNDROME STUDENTS?
Failure syndrome students need assistance in regaining self-confidence
in their academic abilities and in developing strategies for coping with
failure and persisting with problem-solving efforts when they experience
difficulties. Many specific suggestions have emerged from research on particular
theoretical concepts or treatment approaches. Many of these involve what
Ames (1987) has called "cognition retraining." Three of the more prominent
approaches to cognition retraining are attribution retraining, efficacy
training, and strategy training.
This strategy involves bringing about changes in students' tendencies
to attribute failure to lack of ability rather than to a remediable cause,
such as insufficient effort or use of an inappropriate strategy. Typically,
attribution retraining involves exposing students to a planned series of
experiences, couched within an achievement context, in which modeling,
socialization, practice, and feedback are used to teach them to (1) concentrate
on the task at hand rather than worry about failing, (2) cope with failures
by retracing their steps to find their mistake or by analyzing the problem
to find another approach, and (3) attribute their failures to insufficient
effort, lack of information, or use of ineffective strategies rather than
to lack of ability.
These programs also involve exposing students to a planned set of experiences
within an achievement context and providing them with modeling, instruction,
and feedback. However, while attribution retraining programs were developed
specifically for learned helplessness students and thus focus on teaching
constructive response to failure, efficacy training programs were developed
primarily for low achievers who have become accustomed to failure and have
developed generalized low self-concepts of ability. Consequently, efficacy
training helps students set realistic goals and pursue them with the recognition
that they have the ability needed to reach those goals if they apply reasonable
In this approach, modeling and instruction are used to teach problem-solving
strategies and related self-talk that students need to handle tasks successfully.
Strategy training is a component of good cognitive skills instruction to
all students; it is not primarily a remedial technique. However, it is
especially important for use with frustrated students who have not developed
effective learning and problem-solving strategies on their own, but who
can learn them through modeling and explicit instruction.
Ames (1987) noted that these cognitive retraining approaches do not
take into account the social aspects of the classroom and the reward structures
in effect there. Citing findings that an emphasis on competition and social
comparison will increase performance anxiety, Ames recommended emphasizing
private rather than public feedback, phrasing such feedback in terms of
progress beyond the individual's own previous levels rather than comparisons
with classmates, and avoiding such practices as publicly grading on a curve
or posting students' achievement scores.
HOW CAN TEACHERS HELP?
Brophy (1995) found that teachers were unusually confident about their
ability to intervene successfully with failure syndrome students. They
tended to mention similar response strategies regardless of grade level,
location, or effectiveness ratings. A few spoke of providing support and
encouragement to such students without making any demands on them; others
spoke of making demands without providing special support or assistance;
but most suggested a combination of support, encouragement, and task assistance
to shape gradual improvement in work habits.
These teachers would make it clear to failure syndrome students that
they were expected to work conscientiously and persistently so as to turn
in work done completely and correctly, but they would also provide help
if needed, reassure them that they would not be given work that they could
not do, monitor their progress and provide any needed assistance, and reinforce
them by praising their successes, calling attention to their progress,
and providing them with opportunities to display their accomplishments
publicly. This special treatment would be faded gradually as the students
gained confidence and began to work more persistently and independently.
These strategies are in line with what is known about cognitive retraining.
Brophy (1998) found that highly effective teachers and other teachers
generally implemented similar strategies to help failure syndrome students--such
as including encouragement and shaping strategies in their responses to
the student, engaging in supportive behaviors, providing reassurance, and
making personal appeals to the student to improve performance. But the
higher-rated, more-effective teachers appeared to place greater emphasis
on insisting on better effort and seemed to have greater confidence that
the improvements the student could achieve would be stable over time rather
than merely temporary. They tended to assume that the demands made on students
were appropriate (and therefore that failure syndrome problems stemmed
from the students' mistakenly pessimistic attributions and self-efficacy
perceptions), while lower-rated teachers were more likely to fear that
their task demands were too difficult for the student to handle.
Dweck and Elliott (1983) argued that students who have developed an
"entity" view of ability (e.g, who see it as fixed and limited) stand to
benefit from direct training designed to shift them to an "incremental"
view (e.g., seeing ability as something that can be developed through practice).
Teacher behaviors that encourage incremental rather than entity views
of ability include:
* acting more as resource persons than as judges,
* focusing students more on learning processes than on outcomes,
* reacting to errors as natural and useful parts of the learning
process rather than as evidence of failure,
* stressing effort over ability and personal standards over normative
standards when giving feedback, and
* attempting to stimulate achievement efforts through primarily
intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivational strategies.
In summary, failure syndrome students approach assignments with very
low expectations of success and tend to give up at early signs of difficulty.
Many teachers use strategies with these students that are in line with
what we know about cognitive retraining strategies such as attribution
training, efficacy training, and strategy training. Teachers' effectiveness
can be enhanced, however, if they use modeling to teach coping strategies,
especially techniques for persisting in the face of frustration or failure.
This Digest was adapted from: Brophy, Jere. (1996). TEACHING PROBLEM
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