Failure, you want to avoid that! How annoying and discomforting is it to experience that you flopped. A reassuring response would be to say to yourself: well, a lesson learned, or well, that was not the real me, next time better. Or blame it “on the boogie” (1). We all have our motivational and approach-avoiding strategies. The classroom is a place where you become aware how to deal with evaluations of your competence and performance. Mostly in reference to what your peers manage to accomplish (2) . You learn how tricky the balance is between effort and ability, and hot it depends on the (un)fairness of your teacher who does the assessing. On top of that exist parents as a complicating factor; they mostly seem interested in end-results, not the efforts made. It is a delicate thing: dealing with failure. Success breeds success but how do you cope when foreseeing bad results on tests or assignments to be made? Being high in avoidance of failure could mean you are setting your performance goals low and that would imply low attainments as well. Climbing the achievement ladder causes you to make tradeoffs. Now imagine you are not the only one involved in making these tradeoffs but that others, most notably parents, are looking over your shoulder. Suppose they set standards high, for many reasons. Then it becomes really delicate. 10 to 1 that you decide to try to avoid failure.
This is precisely the situation a French study looked into in more detail. The study particularly gauged ‘first generation” students from immigrant backgrounds. Often these students outperform regular students in their school achievement scores (3) and are highly motivated to excel. The study found these students were also high in trying to avoid failure and avoiding high performance goals (being afraid of performing poorly). The study’s contribution is to point out that it is not simply a matter of motivation but clearly one of social belonging and cultural environment of students. Pressure or expectations in your immediate life space are being internalized, as the study suggests, and affects study orientation and motivation.
Apart from the lesson learned that motivation is not merely internal but framed by others and circumstance, a warning is given by the study’s results in that teachers might misinterpret underperforming. Students potentially high in mastery may show a low motivation to perform but while low in setting their performance goals this may be caused by fear of failure. Complex.
When first-generation students succeed at university: On the link between social class, academic performance, and performance-avoidance goals by Mickael Jury,, Annique Smeding , Martine Court, Celine Darnon; Contemporary Educational Psychology 41 (2015) 25–36;
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.11.0010361-476X /c 2014 Elsevier Inc.