Talking to Students About Failure: Be a Reality Check or Soften the Blow?

January 13, 2020

Alexandra Mercer

Ed.D. in Leadership


Talking to students who aren’t meeting expectations is always a delicate balance. Do we soften the blow of bad news with supportive words, or do we speak plainly and deliver a reality check to a struggling student?

The key is to strike the right balance and know when to take each approach. Let’s discuss how to do that.

Two Different Ways to Show We Care

Obviously, we care about our students, which is why we tend toward softening the blow. It’s nicer and is an easy way to show that we care about them. Some students try and fail; it happens. Should they be verbally punished for this? Of course not!

On the other hand, part of caring about our students is preparing them for the world and pushing them to succeed. Some students fail because they don’t try, and those are the young people who often benefit more from a proverbial kick in the pants than yet another sympathetic talk.

A Matter of Skill vs. A Matter of Effort

This month, as I wrapped up the term in my remedial writing course at a community college, I had to talk to two students with the exact same failing grade.

The first student — let’s call him Andre — was a model student in terms of effort. He was never absent, came to class prepared, completed all course work and asked questions. But he just couldn’t seem to master the skills we were learning.

The second student — we’ll call him Zachary — submitted only two-thirds of the required paperwork. He usually came to class but often only physically. (In other words, he was technically there but had his head down or was on his phone.)

By the end of the term, it was clear that both Andre and Zachary had failed to reach the level needed to pass the course. So how was I going to approach the final conferences I would have with Andre and Zachary? As I am sure you can tell, I clearly felt that Andre needed support and Zachary needed to be woken up (sometimes literally).

This situation seems pretty clear cut. But even in more complicated scenarios, I decide how to speak to students based on one surprisingly simple question: Is this student’s issue a matter of skill or effort?

How to Soften the Blow

For my conference with Andre, I started by plainly telling him that he had not passed. There was no sense in sugarcoating it. But I also recapped everything he had done well and explained that his effort had not gone unnoticed. The fact that he had failed, I explained to him, was not a reflection of him as a student. It simply showed that he needed more practice and development before he would be fully ready for the next level.

How to Provide a Reality Check

Zachary asked me what I expected him to in our conference: “Why didn’t I pass?” and “Can’t I do some extra credit?” And I answered his questions bluntly. Though he did well on some assignments, he didn’t pass because he missed too much work. Extra credit only made a difference when one had already put in the baseline effort required to pass. It’s not for the lazy. The requirements to pass the class were explained on day one, and there had been no surprises. If he really wanted to pass, he had the information and skills to do so. Cliché though it sounds, I did not fail him; he failed himself.

There are many variables to take into account when talking to students about their progress (age and level, home situation, additional accommodations, etc.). But here’s the long and short of it: You decide what will help them succeed. Your job as an educator is not to be nice, but to help them grow. Decide what will accomplish that and you can’t go wrong.

American College of Education specializes in helping educators hone their teaching skills. Explore our many graduate-level programs in the field of education.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Alexandra Mercer
Alexandra Mercer, Ed.D. in Leadership

Alex has been teaching for six years, leading classrooms abroad in Korea, Japan, Thailand and Morocco. She continues to be active in the global English education community and loves writing about what she's learned along the way.

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