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PISA 2018 results: The state of fear of failure in the UK

PISA 2018 results: The state of fear of failure in the UK

4 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Stress management & well-being

Every few years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) release their PISA report. This report discusses the performance and wellbeing of 15 years from 79 different countries. It is one of the largest reviews looking at students from around the world. In their 2018 report, which was released this morning, they look extensively at fear of failure. Their findings make for some very interesting reading about UK students – particularly girls.

Read our quick recap of the findings we found the most interesting in the PISA 2018 review here.

What is fear of failure?

It is not failure that people fear. It is the perceived negative consequences that follow the failure that stresses them out. This fear can lead to lowered self-esteem, avoiding challenging tasks, being pessimistic and even cheating. Psychologists have identified the five main things which people fear a failure will lead to:

  • Experiencing shame and embarrassment
  • Readjusting how you see yourself
  • Having an uncertain future
  • Upsetting important people
  • Important people losing interest
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What did the PISA 2018 report find about fear of failure?

A big gender gap

PISA 2018 says: “In almost every education system, girls expressed greater fear of failure than boys, even when they outperformed boys in reading by a large margin, and this gender gap was considerably wider amongst top-performing students”. With regards to the UK, the gap between boys and girls was one of the most pronounced. In fact, female students in the UK have the 5th highest fear of failure out of the 79 countries covered in the report.

Our thoughts: This chimes with a lot of what we are seeing up and down the country. Anecdotally, we have been hearing lots about high achieving female students who put themselves under high pressure (especially in the build up to exams). This probably has links to perfectionism as well as fear of failure.

Fear of failure and fixed mindset

PISA 2018 says: The PISA 2018 report comments on the link between fear of failure and mindsets. They write that “students who believe that their abilities and intelligence can be developed over time (those with a “growth mindset”) also expressed less fear of failure than students who believe their abilities and intelligence are “fixed”.

Our thoughts: It makes sense that there is a link between fear of failure and fixed mindsets. Worrying too much about what might happen if one were to fail (i.e. fear of failure) can lead to students being so risk-averse that they stop taking on challenges and risks (which is a hallmark of a fixed mindset). This is why helping students develop a growth mindset is so important, as it acts as a multiplier that improves lots of different areas of a student’s educational experience.

Fear of failure and well-being

PISA 2018 says: “Students’ confidence in their abilities and their fear of failure also affect both their performance and their well-being. While a moderate sense of fear can spur students to expend greater effort on academic tasks, an excess of fear could compel students to avoid challenging tasks and situations that are essential for their personal growth”. Furthermore, “PISA results show that, in virtually all school systems, students reported less satisfaction with life when they expressed a greater fear of failure”.

Our thoughts: Confidence is a precious but fickle thing. Helping students develop an optimistic outlook about the future as well as teaching them how to improve following a setback, will help reduce their fear of failure and boost their well-being.

Fear of failure and reading: A double-edged sword?

PISA 2018 says: “On average, the greater the fear of failure expressed by students, the higher a country’s reading score. This was observed in a large number of English-speaking and East Asian education systems. However, fear of failure can be a double-edged sword, and parents, teachers and school principals should be aware that instilling a fear of failure in children may also adversely affect their well-being. Policy makers may be interested in learning more about the Flemish Community of Belgium, Estonia, Finland and Germany – education systems where students scored above the OECD average in reading, but expressed less fear of failure than the typical student across OECD countries”.

Our thoughts: Using fear of failure as a motivator is a high risk strategy. It might motivate in the short-term, but long-term it runs the risk of increasing stress and burn-out. The PISA 2018 comment about high performance within low fear of failure environments is particularly interesting as it chimes with a growing area of psychology known as ‘psychological safety’. We have previously blogged on how to develop thisand is an area we plan to write more about in 2020 (so keep your eyes peeled for that).

Final thoughts

Sadly, the nearer it gets to exams, the more we expect to hear more about students suffering from excessively high levels of fear of failure. All the evidence suggests that this is growing increasingly common in our female students, and especially in our high achieving ones.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. By helping students learn about the causes and consequences of fear of failure, as well as pro-actively teaching them how to manager their emotions, we can help improve their self-regulation and develop healthy motivators towards their success.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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