How—and why—colleges are teaching students to fail

Some colleges are normalizing failure, helping students feel comfortable with making mistakes and not being the perfect student, writes Jessica Bennett in the New York Times.

Today's students face rising levels of stress. In 2016, "The American Freshman" survey found that the share of students who frequently "felt depressed" grew from 6.1% in 2009 to 9.5% in 2014—the highest level since 1988, according to researchers. Additionally, those who "felt overwhelmed" due to commitments and schoolwork jumped from 27.1% to 34.6%. One student told the Times there's "competitive" pressure to appear busy at all times to impress classmates.

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In response, colleges are experimenting with ways to help students cope with the pressures they face, both academic and social. One strategy is to simply provide professors, students, and other high-achieving individuals with a forum to be open about instances in which they've disappointed themselves, someone else, or perhaps both, Bennett says.

For example, at Smith College, personal failures are conveyed on a large screen in a busy hub. "I failed my first college writing exam," confides one student. "I drafted a poem entitled 'Chocolate Caramels,'" writes a literature scholar, "that has been rejected by 21 journals… so far."

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Smith College calls it "Failing Well." The program includes workshops, discussions, and broader campaign messaging. When students enroll in the program, they receive a certificate of failure that reads: "You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb, or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars, or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human."

Rachel Simmons—who is officially a leadership development specialist in Smith College's Wurtele Center for Work and Life, but unofficially the campus "failure czar"—helps students understand that failure is an essential part of learning, not an impediment, Bennett writes.

Other colleges are sending similar messages to students. The University of Texas has an app for students called "Thrive" that sends them inspiring quotes and videos. Davidson College has what they call a "failure fund," which provides students with money to work on creative projects without the risk of becoming financially deprived if something doesn't work out, Bennett says. The University of California, Los Angeles, recently hired a "head of student resilience."

These programs and initiatives are a part of a larger shift in higher education about what it means to receive an education that equips a young person for the real world, writes Bennett.

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How did students come to be so fearful of failure?

Bennett cites researchers who say that a large part of why students need this extra support is because they've come from families in which they're accustomed to "helicopter parenting" and "micromanaging" by their parents.  

Another factor may be the current economic and political climate, Bennett writes. Students might worry whether they'll get a job after graduation—especially first-generation and low-income college students, who often feel extra pressure to do well (Bennett, New York Times, 6/24).

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