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Fear of failure is examined from a need achievement perspective and in the context of research amongst high school and university students. Theory and data suggest that fear of failure can be separated into two camps: overstriving and self-protection. Although each has yields in terms of achievement or in terms of self-protection, they render the academic process an uncertain one for students marked by anxiety, low resilience, and vulnerability to learned helplessness. A cascading model of failure avoidance is developed that differentiates various aspects of fear of failure on the basis of a number of correlates and outcomes and provides direction for intervention. An alternative orientation—success orientation—is explored in detail as are four factors identified as the key means to promote success orientation. These factors are self-belief, control, learning focus, and value of school and ways to promote these in the educational and counselling context are discussed.
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Martin, A.J., & Marsh, H.W. (2003). Fear of failure: Friend or foe? Australian Psychologist,
38, 31-38.
This article may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the journal. It is
not the copy of record.
Fear of Failure
1
Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe?
Andrew J. Martin
and
Herbert W. Marsh
SELF Research Centre, University of Western Sydney
Running Head: Fear of failure
Word Count: 5715 (including abstract, body, tables, figures, references)
Journal Section: Articles
Professional Area: Educational and Developmental; Counselling
Author Note
Requests for further information about this investigation can be made to Dr Andrew Martin,
SELF Research Centre, Bankstown Campus, University of Western Sydney, Locked Bag
1797, Penrith South DC, NSW 1797. E-Mail: a.martin@uws.edu.au.
The authors would like to thank Associate Professor Ray Debus for his input into this
research.
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Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe?
Abstract
Fear of failure is examined from a need achievement perspective and in the context of
research amongst high school and university students. Theory and data suggest that
fear of failure can be separated into two camps: overstriving and self-protection.
Although each has yields in terms of achievement or in terms of self-protection, they
render the academic process an uncertain one for students marked by anxiety, low
resilience, and vulnerability to learned helplessness. A cascading model of failure
avoidance is developed that differentiates various aspects of fear of failure on the
basis of a number of correlates and outcomes and provides direction for intervention.
An alternative orientation success orientation is explored in detail as are four
factors identified as the key means to promote success orientation. These factors are
self-belief, control, learning focus, and value of school and ways to promote these in
the educational and counselling context are discussed.
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Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe?
Fear of failure1: Friend or foe? This may seem like a silly and possibly
rhetorical question. In fact, it is not such a silly question. As this paper shows, a fear
of failure is a friend to some students in the sense that it drives them to achieve and
persist in the face of challenge and adversity. However, as the paper also shows, for
these students, it is not a particularly good friend because it also renders them
vulnerable to setback, takes them on a roller-coaster ride of emotional ups and downs,
and renders the journey to success somewhat difficult and uncertain. For many other
students, a fear of failure is more clearly a foe, yielding high anxiety,
underachievement, reduced resilience, and leading some to learned helplessness. This
paper examines these two groups of failure fearers and explores an alternative
orientation – success orientation – and ways to facilitate it. To illustrate the
arguments, the paper draws primarily on educational and counselling psychology
theory, data, and research – but practitioners will readily recognise that the principles
are applicable in many other contexts.
Theoretical foundations
The theoretical context for this paper is located in need achievement theory and
later refinements of this theory. From a need achievement perspective, students vary in
terms of their motive to avoid failure and approach success (Atkinson 1957;
McClelland, 1965). Based on a need achievement model of motivation, students can
be characterised in terms of three typologies: those that are success oriented, those that
are failure avoidant, and those that are failure accepting.
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Success-oriented students tend to be optimistic, adopt a proactive and positive
orientation to tasks, and respond to setback with optimism and energy (Covington &
Omelich, 1991; Martin, 1998; in press; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001a).
Failure-avoidant students are the classic failure fearers. They tend to be anxious
(Alpert & Haber, 1960), motivated by a fear of failure, live in self-doubt, and are
uncertain about their ability to avoid failure or achieve success (Covington &
Omelich, 1991). While these students often work hard and achieve, they tend to be
adversely affected by setback as it tends to confirm their doubts about their ability and
their uncertain control (Covington & Omelich, 1991; Martin, 1998; Martin, 2001; in
press; Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b). In essence, they lack resilience. Often in response
to this fear of failure, these students may even actively sabotage their chances of
success (e.g., procrastinate, leave tasks until the last minute, or expend little effort) so
that they have an excuse if they do not do so well. This excuse serves a protective
function in that they can blame their poor performance on their procrastination, for
example, rather than a possible lack of ability (Covington, 1992).
Failure-accepting students (sometimes referred to as learned helpless) have
given up to the point of not even trying to avoid failure. These students are generally
disengaged from tasks and display a helpless pattern of motivation (Abramson,
Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; see also Covington, 1992, 1997). These students lack
both motivation and resilience.
A quadripolar model of need achievement
The classic theory of need achievement (Atkinson, 1957; see also McClelland,
1965) has recently been revisited and represented in a two dimensional model that
locates students in terms of the dual motives to avoid failure and approach success
(Covington, 1992, 1997; Covington & Omelich, 1991). This two dimensional
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framework, adapted from Covington (1992, 1997) is shown in Figure 1. This figure
presents four broad typologies that vary in the extent to which they are failure
avoidant and success oriented.
Insert Figure 1 about here
In previous work by Martin and colleagues (Martin, 1998; Martin et al., 2001a),
failure fearers have been separated into two groups: (1) students who deal with their
fear of failure by hard work and/or success – the overstriver in Figure 1 who is high
on both failure avoidance and success orientation and (2) students who deal with their
fear of failure through counterproductive activity that is aimed more at self-protection
than attaining success the self-protector in Figure 1 who is high on failure avoidance
and low on success orientation.
The overstriver
The overstriver tends to avoid failure by succeeding (Covington & Omelich,
1991; Martin et al., 2001a). As is discussed below, this is in marked contrast to the
student who is success oriented and achieves to attain success rather than to avoid
failure. The fact that a fear of failure underpins much of what the overstriver does
means that many of the factors that are associated with fear of failure ‘come along for
the ride’ – an expression used deliberately because even though performance may be
unimpaired, the journey is far from pleasant. These concomitant factors include
anxiety, perceptions of low control, and an unstable self-esteem (Martin, 1998, 2001;
Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b).
This form of failure avoidance is quite common. As Table 1 shows, amongst
two samples of university students (first and second year students from three
universities in Sydney, Australia), around 45% agreed with survey items reflecting a
need to succeed based on a fear of failure (Martin, 1998). Amongst high school
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students (Year 9, 10, and 11 students from two Australian high schools), this was 40%
(Martin, 2001).
Insert Table 1 about here
The risks inherent in this form of motivation are two-fold. First, as indicated
above, it renders the journey somewhat unpleasant – fraught with anxiety, perceptions
of low control, and unstable self-esteem (Martin et al., 2001a). Second, when
overstrivers do not succeed, failure is seen as proof of suspected incompetence and
this increases the risk of falling into the second and more counter-productive form of
failure avoidance: self-protection (Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1991;
Martin et al., 2001a). Essentially, then, overstrivers are less resilient than their
success-oriented counterparts and so in this sense what appears to be the friend can in
fact be a foe.
The self-protector
The self-protector does not aim so much to avoid failure but to avoid the
implications of failure (Covington, 1992). They avoid the implications of failure
through strategically manoeuvring in ways to protect their self-worth. In doing so,
they are able to mitigate the extent to which failure reflects poorly on their ability and
consequent self-worth (Covington, 1992). They do this in a number of ways, two of
which will be discussed here: self-handicapping and defensive pessimism.
Self-handicappers choose impediments or obstacles to successful performance
that enable them to deflect the cause of failure away from their ability and on to the
acquired impediment. In doing so, they avoid disconfirmation of a desired self-
conception (Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986). Failure under these conditions is seen as
related to the acquired impediment and not because of low ability. Examples of self-
handicapping include the strategic reduction of effort, engaging in little or no practice
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for upcoming tasks, procrastination, or the choice of performance debilitating
circumstances (see Berglas & Jones, 1978; Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986). In the event
of failure, the student has a ready excuse. For example, the lack of effort is seen as the
cause and not the student’s lack of ability.
Defensive pessimism involves setting unrealistically low expectations prior to
events in which one’s performance is to be evaluated (Norem & Cantor, 1986a,
1986b). In the event of failure, the student has cognitively and affectively “steeled”
him or herself for the outcome (Norem & Cantor, 1986a, 1986b), and so in this sense,
defensive pessimism is self-protective. Moreover, setting lower, and possibly safer,
expectations can reduce the threshold for satisfactory performance (Baumgardner &
Brownlee, 1987) or serve to set performance standards that are less difficult to
achieve (Showers & Ruben, 1990). Setting lower and safer standards against which
one’s ability is judged reduces the likelihood that it will be judged as inadequate in a
way that would call into question one’s self-worth.
Of the two self-protective strategies, defensive pessimism is the most commonly
seen. As Table 1 shows, amongst university students, over one-third in their first and
second years endorse items reflecting defensive pessimism (Martin, 1998), while a
similar number of high school students agree to such items (Martin, 2001). Table 1
also shows that at least ten percent of high school students endorse items reflecting
self-handicapping while six percent of first and second year university students do so.
A cascading model of failure avoidance
Martin and colleagues (1998; Martin et al., 2001a) have also shown that the
three forms of failure avoidance can be differentiated in terms of the degree to which
they are inimical to achievement and accomplishment. Multidimensional scaling by
Martin (1998; Martin et al., 2001a) showed that when mapped in multidimensional
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space, overstriving is high in success orientation and failure avoidance, defensive
pessimism is high in failure avoidance and neither high nor low in success orientation,
while self-handicapping actually borders failure acceptance. This is conceptually
feasible given that self-handicapping involves active sabotage to one’s performance,
whereas defensive pessimism primarily involves cognitive posturing that does not
necessarily put in place behavioural barriers to success. Outcomes for overstrivers are
the least impaired because they are known to work hard – but their effort is steeped in
fear.
In support of this, Martin et al. (2001a, 2001b, in press) found that self-
handicapping yielded the most markedly negative outcomes predicting lower self-
regulation, lower persistence, an unwillingness to continue with one’s studies, later
withdrawal, and lower achievement (see also Midgley, Arunkumar, & Urdan, 1996;
Midgley & Urdan, 1995; Rhodewalt & Davison, 1986). Further down the cascade,
defensive pessimism negatively predicted academic outcomes such as self-regulation,
however, the strength of predictive paths was markedly lower than those between
self-handicapping and the same outcomes. Finally, overstriving actually positively
predicted outcomes, however, was also highly correlated with anxiety – underscoring
the fact that although the outcomes may be adaptive, the journey can be unpleasant
for these people.
Perhaps the most maladaptive aspect of self-protective failure avoidance is that
it renders the individual particularly vulnerable to setback and consequently failure
acceptance or learned helplessness (Martin et al., 2001a). The self-doubt and
uncertain self-esteem that plagues the overstriver is even more pronounced in the self-
protector and setback, no matter how isolated, can have the effect of confirming the
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doubts these students have about themselves and lead to a downward spiralling of
underachievement and ultimately failure acceptance (Martin, 1998).
Failure avoidance can be further differentiated in terms of the cognitions
students hold about success and failure as well as the behaviours they exhibit when
going about their studies. More specifically, they are cognitively and behaviourally
engaged with success and failure in different ways. As is discussed more fully below,
success orientation is reflected in both cognitive and behavioural engagement that is
oriented towards achievement (e.g., optimism and hard work). Overstriving is
reflected in behavioural engagement similar to success orientation but also reflects a
cognitive disposition that is more engaged with fear than success (e.g., hard work and
anxiety). Defensive pessimism represents greater cognitive engagement with fear that
is not yet carried through behaviourally (e.g., pessimism but not overtly
counterproductive behaviour). Self-handicapping reflects full cognitive engagement
with fear that is also followed through behaviourally (e.g., pessimism and negativity
yielding counterproductive behaviour). Finally, failure acceptance reflects cognitive
and behavioural disengagement from fear of failure and success.
Taken together, the data, the theory, and our hypothesising suggest that there is
something of a cascading model of failure avoidance. This model is shown in Figure 2
with the process moving from success orientation to overstriving to defensive
pessimism to self-handicapping to failure acceptance.
Insert Figure 2 about here
The arguments presented above indicate that the cascading nature of fear of
failure or failure avoidance is borne out in a number of ways. First, as the orientation
moves from overstriving to defensive pessimism and then to self-handicapping,
decreasing numbers of students (hence cascading from an item-response theory
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perspective) endorse survey items measuring these constructs (see Table 1). Second,
as Martin and colleagues (Martin, 2001, Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b, in press) have
shown, achievement and other outcomes become more adversely affected the further a
student moves down the cascade. Third, multidimensional scaling maps these
constructs in ever declining success orientation and increasing failure avoidance (and
then to failure acceptance). Fourth, across university students’ first two years,
correlations between the constructs progressively decrease the more distant they
become in terms of failure avoidance and success orientation. Table 2 demonstrates.
For example, overstriving is more proximal to defensive pessimism than it is to self-
handicapping and the respective correlations support this. The fact that this finding is
supported in students’ first and second years at university (where the same students
were again assessed one year later) underscores the stability of this phenomenon.
Insert Table 2 about here
The implications of a model along these lines are three-fold. First, it shows that
students do not so much differ in kind but in degree. This means that there is likely to
be a set of common factors that underpin their orientations and which can be
harnessed in intervention (as is discussed below). Second, following from this the
model provides information on how students are oriented in terms of failure
avoidance, processes and outcomes, and cognitive and behavioural engagement.
Third, in locating students on this continuum we are able to develop appropriate
interventions. For example, if a student presents as overstriving, intervention would
primarily target cognitive aspects of their academic lives on the understanding that
behaviourally they share many characteristics with the success-oriented student. On
the other hand, intervention with self-handicappers would target both cognitive and
behavioural aspects of their academic lives (see Covington, 1992; Covington &
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Omelich, 1991; Martin, 2001; Martin et al., 2001a, for conceptual and empirical
expansion of these ideas).
An alternative: Success orientation
We now revisit the central question of whether failure avoidance or fear of
failure is friend or foe. The theory and data suggest that for the overstriver, fear of
failure can be construed as a friend but not a very good one while for the self-
protector it is more clearly a foe but offers the individual self-protective rewards that
may be misconstrued as a friend of sorts. The fact that each has particular yields
makes the selection of these strategies very tempting for students.
Progressing the friendship analogy further and identifying the criteria that
constitute good friendships provides a useful heuristic for exploring alternatives. A
good friend is someone who is optimistic for us, recognises and values our abilities
and talents, is focused on our betterment, and looks beyond our weaknesses to our
strengths. Good friendships are characterised by a focus on improvement, self-
development, striving for personal potential, and autonomy/self-determination.
What emerges from this analysis of friendship and viewed from a need
achievement perspective is that friends and friendships are success oriented and
promote a success orientation. Success orientation is characterised by optimism,
energy and drive focused on achieving positive outcomes (not avoiding negative
ones), resilience to setback, and a focus on strengths rather than deficits (Atkinson
1957; Covington, 1992; Covington & Omelich, 1991; Martin, 1998, 2001, in press;
Martin et al., 2001a; McClelland, 1965). The factors that drive these processes and
outcomes are a focus on personal development, maintenance and fostering of an
individual’s sense of worth, a valuing of the relationship, and the scope for self-
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determination and autonomy. It is these factors that we harness to develop the
alternative orientation success orientation.
Factors underpinning success orientation
In the educational context, Martin (2001, in press) has developed a model of
motivation and resilience that encompasses the factors described above that underpin
success orientation. Four (psychometrically sound and reliable – see Martin, 2001)
factors in his model that are particularly congruent with our criteria underpinning
friendship are self-belief (mean target loading=.53; Cronbach’s alpha=.81), learning
focus (mean target loading=.54; Cronbach’s alpha=.79), value of school (mean target
loading=.54; Cronbach’s alpha=.79), and perceived control (mean target loading=.66;
Cronbach’s alpha=.85). Most importantly, it is these factors that are the conduits for
intervention aimed at promoting success orientation (Martin, 2001). Each of these
four factors is explored in turn.
Self-belief: Self-belief is students’ belief and confidence in their ability to
understand or to do well in what they set out to do, to meet challenges they face, and
to perform to the best of their ability. Self-belief is important for three primary
reasons. First, it constitutes a generative capacity such that students high in self-belief
tend to generate and test alternative courses of action when they do not meet with
initial success. Second, self-belief enhances students’ functioning through elevated
levels of effort and persistence. Third, self-belief enhances students’ ability to deal
with a problem situation by influencing cognitive and emotional processes related to
the situation (Bandura, 1986, 1997). Students low in self-belief tend to focus on their
deficiencies rather than their strengths and view situations as more difficult than they
are in reality (Bandura, 1986, 1997). Self-belief has been linked to a number of
adaptive outcomes including self-regulation, effort, persistence, and achievement
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(Marsh, 1990; Martin & Debus, 1998; Meece, Wigfield, & Eccles, 1990; Pintrich &
Blumenfeld, 1985; Schunk, 1990; Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990).
Value of school: Value of school is how much students believe what they learn
or do is useful, important, and relevant to them or to the world in general. When
students see the importance and usefulness of what they learn and do, they tend to be
more engaged in tasks and are in a stronger position to achieve (Martin, 2001, in
press). A value of school is also relevant to resilience in the sense that it is related to
persistence in the face of challenge and even adversity (Martin, 2001, in press) and it
is this persistence that demarcates students that abandon tasks prematurely from those
who are able to effectively meet challenges. A value of school can also strengthen
students for tough times in the way that it also predicts their willingness to continue
with their studies in the future (Martin & Debus, 1998).
Learning focus: Learning focus refers to a focus on solving problems and
developing skills. If students are learning focused they tend to work hard, want to
learn more, enjoy learning new things, enjoy solving problems, and do a good job for
its own satisfaction and not just for rewards. Learning-focused students are focused on
mastery rather than outperforming others. These students see achievement on tasks as
reflecting more on their effort than their ability and failure is viewed as diagnostic
feedback that can lead to improvement at a later time (Middleton & Midgley, 1997).
Because of this effort and mastery emphasis, learning-focused students are not so
threatened by failure because failure says more about their effort and strategy than
their ability. It has been found that learning-focused individuals choose challenging
tasks and are less inclined to worry about performance (Duda, 1995). Moreover,
learning focus is linked to the practice of mastery strategies and negatively correlated
with avoidance strategies (Lochbaum & Roberts, 1993).
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Control: Control refers to the extent to which students believe they are able to
avoid failure and achieve success. Students who believe they have little or no control
over outcomes are increasingly uncertain as to whether they can avoid failure or bring
about success. When students are low in perceived control, they are more likely to
engage in counterproductive behaviour such as self-handicapping or may give up
altogether along the lines of learned helplessness (Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b).
Perceived control predicts individuals’ persistence, attention, effort, and participation
(Patrick, Skinner, & Connell, 1993) while uncertain control is negatively correlated
with achievement, mastery motivation, competence evaluation, and competence affect
(Harter & Connell, 1984). Moreover, individuals high on an uncertain control
dimension are likely to score significantly lower on IQ tests and others’ ratings of
competence and are also low in mastery orientation (Connell, 1985).
Strategies for promoting success orientation
Consistent with the proposition that success orientation is multifaceted, it
follows that intervention or prevention strategies must also be multifaceted. In line
with the four pivotal factors identified above, a series of strategies is put forward
aimed at enhancing students’ self-belief, value of school, perceived control, and
learning focus.
Strategies to enhance self-belief: Self-belief is perhaps the most critical facet to
develop primarily because it is one of the strongest predictors of task achievement and
engagement (Bandura, 1986, 1997; Marsh, 1990; Martin & Debus, 1998). It has been
shown that one of the strongest predictors of a positive self-belief is students’ previous
experience of success (Marsh, 1990). Thus, from an educator’s perspective, enhancing
students’ self-belief involves structuring activities so as to maximise their
opportunities for success. One way to do this is to break class work into smaller and
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more manageable components (‘chunking’) so that students can experience small
successes along the way thus building confidence and intrinsic motivation. Students
can also be encouraged to chunk their own schoolwork tasks in a similar way. Another
behavioural strategy is to build ‘hard skills’ such as study management and time
management. Research into behaviour analysis shows that students can be taught study
and self management strategies with the results of increasing the time they spend on
tasks (e.g., homework), enhancing their academic achievement, and experiencing less
problems with completing tasks (Olympia, Sheridan, Jenson, & Andrews, 1994).
Of course, for a more comprehensive approach to enhancing students’ self-
belief, educators should address both behavioural and cognitive dimensions.
Accordingly, challenging students’ negative thinking and encouraging them to also do
this is relevant here. For example, harnessing principles of cognitive-behavioural
therapy (Beck, 1976; Meichenbaum, 1974), we encourage students to challenge their
negative thinking by teaching them the skills they require to observe their automatic
thoughts when they receive feedback or are assigned tasks, showing them how to look
for the evidence that challenges their negative thinking, and then encouraging them to
challenge these thoughts with this evidence. Another cognitive strategy is to maximise
students’ opportunities for success by repositioning their perception of success in
terms of personal bests and improvement – outcomes accessible to all students
(Covington, 1992).
Strategies to enhance perceived value of school: The issues of relevance and
meaning are what underpin students’ value of school. Enhancing the relevance and
meaning of school requires educators to link what is taught in class with students’
lives or interests, students’ talents, what they may do when they leave school, and
perhaps what they do in other parts of their lives. Doing one or more of these things
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builds opportunities for students to see the relevance, utility, and importance of what
they do – this builds a value of school. It is also important to show students that what
they learn not only teaches them facts but also how to think and analyse and that these
skills help them in many walks of life including later workplace responsibilities, their
social and personal lives, and other areas of their lives such as sport. Moreover,
educators themselves must be role models by showing that they value what they are
teaching (McInerney, 2000).
Strategies to enhance learning focus: Researchers make a distinction between
a learning focus and a performance focus (Duda & Nicholls, 1992; Martin & Debus,
1998; Middleton & Midgley, 1997). Learning focus refers to an individual’s focus on
the task at hand, mastery on it, developing new skills, and extending him or herself. A
learning focus is also underpinned by an individual’s focus on effort and strategy
rather than ability (Martin et al., 2001a, 2001b, in press; Middleton & Midgley, 1997).
Essentially, it reflects a focus on process. Performance focus refers to an individual’s
focus on outcomes and how performance on the task will be judged or evaluated.
Essentially, it reflects a focus on outcomes. Following from this, enhancing students’
learning focus essentially involves promoting a focus on mastery and skill
development, aspiring to personal bests rather than outperforming others (Martin,
2001, in press), emphasising effort and strategy as the key means to mastery (Craven,
Marsh, & Debus, 1991; Martin et al., 2001a), and encouraging students to focus on the
task at hand and how to do it (McInerney, 2000; Nicholls, 1989; Qin, Johnson, &
Johnson, 1995). In essence, these strategies encourage students to focus on the task at
hand and this reduces cognitive interference in the form of concern (or fear) about how
they are being evaluated or their performance relative to others.
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Research into class climate also provides direction for enhancing students’
learning focus (Urdan, Midgley, & Anderman, 1998). Not only does a learning focus
differ at the individual level, it can also vary at a group level. This is not uncommon in
classrooms, sporting teams, or workplaces. Ideally, then, we need to not only address a
learning focus at the individual level but also at the group level. Three ways to affect a
group- or class-level learning focus are through peer tutoring, cooperative learning, or
collaborative learning (Kamps, Barhetta, Leonard, & Delquadri, 1994; Killen, 1998).
For example, Kamps et al. (1994) found that classwide peer tutoring in reading not
only facilitates interactions between students in the class but also enhances reading
fluency and correct responses to reading comprehension.
Strategies to enhance control: Attribution research shows that amongst the key
means to enhance students’ sense of control is to encourage them to focus on causes of
success and failure that are within their control (Weiner, 1985, 1994). The core causal
factors within students’ control are effort (how much work they do) and strategy (how
they do that work). Students develop a sense of control when they focus on the
connection between their effort (and strategy) and outcomes. Students also develop a
sense of control when they see that they are able to make choices and decisions in
class that affect the way work is done. One way to do this is to provide students with
choices (within sensible and clearly thought-out parameters) over class objectives,
assessment tasks, criteria for assessment, and due dates for work assigned (McInerney,
2000). Students’ control is also enhanced when they know what they need to do to
maintain good performance and to minimise the risk of poor performance. This
requires educators to provide students with feedback in effective and consistent ways
(Martens, 1992; Martens & Mellor, 1990). Research shows that feedback that
enhances a sense of control is primarily task based and makes it very clear how they
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can improve (Craven et al., 1991; Martin et al., 2001b). Enhancing students’ control is
also about reducing uncertainty in their academic lives. Students who are uncertain as
to why they received a particular mark or outcome have a low sense of control
(Thompson, 1994). Hence, an important strategy to reduce students’ uncertainty is to
administer rewards that are directly contingent on what they do and reduce
inconsistent reward contingencies that can create confusion and uncertainty in
students’ minds as to what they did to receive that reward and how they should go
about things next time around (Thompson, 1994).
Effective goal setting combined with effective reinforcement (as described
above) can be an even more powerful way to enhance students’ sense of control and
also their achievement (Martens, Witt, Daly, & Vollmer, 1999; McInerney, 2000;
Miller & Kelley, 1994). Effective goal setting requires that goals are achievable,
believable, clear, and desirable (ABCD – McInerney, 2000) and when these criteria
are met students have a greater sense of direction and capacity.
Other issues relevant to these strategies: The relationship between the
quadripolar model and the four strategies is, we propose, bi-directional in that (a) the
strategies are a means to improve students’ orientations to their studies and (b) the
quadripolar model is a means to assist interventions using these strategies. In relation
to the former, the four strategies are a means to shift students up the cascade towards
success orientation. Obviously the further down the cascade students are located, the
more intensively these strategies would need to be implemented over a longer period
of time. Conversely, the quadripolar model is also a means to classify students and this
classification leads to assessments that can better guide practitioners and educators in
their application of cognitive and behavioural strategies.
Future directions
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Although this paper is primarily aimed at answering a specific question
(friend or foe?), along the way a number of new ideas and propositions have emerged
that require further analysis and empirical verification. It was proposed that failure
avoidance orientations are attractive to the student because they can enhance
achievement or offer self-protection opportunities. There is a need to explore
strategies in the classroom and counselling contexts to promote the attractiveness of
success orientation. This will require addressing such issues as peer group influence,
family backgrounds, and even the school culture. Following from this, some solid
intervention research is needed to examine the impact of assistance on the four facets
proposed here to underpin success orientation – self-belief, control, learning focus,
and value of school.
The cascading model of failure avoidance is a new representation of need
achievement theory and requires verification. This might involve tracking students
and their cognitive and behavioural movement over time to explore shifts along the
lines of that presented in the model. Also, requiring further empirical consideration is
the interface of self-belief, control, learning focus, and value of schooling and each
stage of the cascade with particular emphasis on which facets and in what degree
are most effective in moving students up the cascade towards success orientation.
The impact of the learning climate on students’ fear of failure must also be
addressed. The learning climate has been shown to hold implications for students’
motivation and has also been linked to students’ tendency to self-protect (Midgley &
Urdan, 1995). This raises the issue of students’ contexts and how they impact on
other aspects of their academic lives. For example, the learning climate and its
impact on defensive pessimism has not been addressed to date. Also, the impact of
altering the learning climate (e.g., from competitive to cooperative - see Johnson &
Fear of Failure
20
Johnson, 1989; Qin et al., 1995) on students’ academic strategies has not been
studied and future research might focus on this with a view to identifying
interventions that can take place at class and institutional levels.
Conclusion
This paper began with what seemed like a silly question. Examination of the
evidence and the separation of fear of failure or failure avoidance into two groups
indicated that it is not such a silly question. In some respects fear of failure can be a
friend of sorts – but not a very good one, and in other respects it is more a foe – but
with some self-protective advantages. Pursuing the friendship analogy a little further,
four characteristics of adaptive friendships were identified that are congruent with
factors underpinning a model of success orientation developed by Martin (2001, in
press). The factors self-belief, learning focus, value of school, and control – are each
important means by which success orientation is nurtured in students’ lives and thus
important points of intervention for practitioners operating in contexts where students
fear failure and are motivated to avoid it.
Fear of Failure
21
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Footnote 1. Throughout the paper, ‘fear of failure’ and ‘failure avoidance’ are often
used interchangeably. It is recognised, however, that fear of failure is a cognitive
phenomenon and failure avoidance is its behavioural counterpart.
Fear of Failure
28
Table 1. Percentage of three samples agreeing to items in subscales
High School
(n=479)
First Year Uni
(n=584)
Second Year Uni
(n=489)
Overstriving
40%
47%
45%
Defensive pessimism
33%
44%
34%
Self-handicapping
11%
6%
7%
Note. Subscales are not independent so students can endorse items on more than one subscale
Fear of Failure
29
Table 2. Time 1 and Time 2 correlations (n=328 university students)
OS1
DP1
SH1
OS2
DP2
SH2
OS1
.82
DP1
.43
.92
SH1
.29
.32
.92
OS2
.61
.28
.27
.84
DP2
.35
.57
.31
.48
.92
SH2
.13
.19
.59
.33
.44
.92
Notes: All correlations significant at p<0.05; Bolded coefficients are test-retest correlations (1-year time lapse)
Coefficients in diagonal are reliability coefficients (Cronbach’s alpha)
OS=Overstriving; DP=Defensive Pessimism; SH=Self-Handicapping
Fear of Failure
30
Figure 1
Quadripolar model of need achievement
adapted from Covington (1992)
Success
oriented
Failure
avoidant
High
Low
Low
Optimist
Failure fearer I:
Overstriver
Failure accepter
High
Failure fearer II:
Self-protector
Fear of Failure
31
Figure 2. Cascading model of failure avoidance
Failure Avoidance I
(eg. Overstriving)
Failure Acceptance
(eg. Learned Helpless)
Success Orientation
Adaptive concomitants:
success focus, effort
attributions, perceived
control, high and stable
self-belief.
Adaptive outcomes:
achievement,
persistence, self-
regulation, future
plans, resilience.
Counterproductive concomitants: focus on failure and self-protection, helpless attributions,
perceived lack of control, unstable self-belief and self-doubt, anxiety.
Counterproductive outcomes: withdrawal, poor achievement, low persistence, low resilience.
LOW
HIGH
LOW
HIGH
Failure Avoidance II
(eg. Defensive Pessimism)
Failure Avoidance II
(eg. Self-Handicapping)
(a) Cognitively engaged
and (b) Behaviourally
engaged with success
(a) Beginning to
engage cognitively
with fear but (b)
Behaviourally engaged
with success
(a) Cognitively
engaged with fear and
(b) Beginning to
behaviourally engage
with fear
(a) Cognitively engaged
with fear and (b)
Behaviourally engaged
with fear
(a) Cognitively
disengaged and (b)
Behaviourally
disengaged from fear
and success
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