Bouncing Back from Failures

Pursuing our goals often goes hand in hand with experiencing challenges and failure. Failure is an important part of the human experience. While failure can incite difficult feelings, it also gives us the opportunity to build skills, learn how to cope, cultivate a growth mindset and ultimately achieve our goals. Mantzicopoulos (1997) found that when students excessively blame themselves for an academic failure, self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation suffer. On the other hand, Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat (2005) found that attitudes of acceptance and self-compassion in the face of academic failures were related to students remaining more interested and involved in course topics and the pursuit of academic achievement goals. Students often have a lot riding on academic performance (scholarships/financial aid, GPA requirements, eligibility for positions, etc.), and academic failures can make goals feel unattainable.

Understand that students have many factors that may impact their academic performance such as jobs, families, and other responsibilities or stressors outside of the classroom. Do what you can to be sensitive to these factors, especially when they impact academics. Helping students bounce back from failures and appreciating their successes can have a positive impact on their overall well-being. After an academic failure, holding students’ negative emotions around the failure with compassion allows for a reduction in students becoming fixated on thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt (Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat, 2005). Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat (2005) also state that constructive attitudes surrounding failure help students focus on mastering tasks at hand rather than worrying about performance evaluations and retain confidence in their competence as learners.

Ideas for Overcoming Failures 

  • Invite the truth. This could mean looking at the failure objectively or accepting the failure in a way that allows you to reflect on the things that could or could not be changed. Writing about a failure can be effective in giving perspective on the situation.
  • Face it and embrace it. Allow yourself to sit with the feelings of failure, and try to acknowledge successes in tandem. Practicing self-care and self-compassion is important.
  • Learn from it. Try to find at least one thing you’ve learned from the failure. It doesn’t have to be life-altering discovery; small lessons can add value to our lives.
  • Break the stigma. Talking openly about our failures can help us connect with others authentically and openly. Consider sharing a time you failed and how it impacted you.


  • Talk about times that you’ve failed and how you worked through those failures.
  • Teach students how to use mistakes/failures to their advantage.
  • Use exams and other assignments as teaching tools, rather than the end of learning. Examples include:
    • Instead of simply giving students their grades, go over the exam or assignment and discuss areas of common struggle, what these mistakes mean for thinking and learning, and how they connect to new learning.
    • Allow students to correct mistakes and redo assignments to demonstrate continued mastery and learning.
    • Provide students with individual feedback on assignments, and model how to use this feedback to improve on future assignments.
    • Avoid excessively difficult exams early in the semester which historically most of the class predictably fails. Revise and teach to the deficits you see commonly repeated.
  • Explicitly teach strategies you use to overcome failure. (See sidebar for ideas)
  • Teach students how to self-assess accurately by modeling your own self-assessing behavior.
  • Focus less on competition and performance and more on learning and mastery.
  • Be optimistic about how students are doing in your class.
  • Normalize failures by sharing stories from others who have failed, recovered and learned important lessons.
  • Request a CSU Health Network presentation for your class about failure recovery and check out the Rams Fail Forward

“In Fall 2017, I had taught a required second-year undergraduate course for the eighth time, and I took a very different approach. I mentioned to the students that I had struggled with specific topics in that same course when I was an undergraduate student. I told them that I had reordered the traditional presentation of the topics in the class to make it easier to grasp the more difficult concepts. I received several thank-yous during the semester from students who were repeating the course and had been overwhelmed by one of the more difficult topics due to the traditional order of topics.”


We welcome your feedback for this tool kit.