Failure comes in many flavors. Some are obvious to advisors, but some may not be. Stanford students may encounter failure if they earn a failing grade on an exam or in a class; if they are placed on academic probation, provisional registration, or suspension. They can fail in their relationships. They can fail to achieve goals they have set for themselves, such as securing a space in an Introductory Seminar, a September Studies program, or landing an internship. They may fail to live up to their own expectations or the expectations (real or imagined) that others (including parents and friends) may have of them.
Students may also perceive other kinds of experiences as failures. A new or ongoing medical issue or injury may be perceived as failure if it means the student cannot perform in the way she (and/or others) expects. Feeling like she doesn’t belong or fit in here at Stanford can feel like a personal failure, especially after working so hard to get here. Quitting, or walking away from something they feel ambivalent about may feel like failure, as can not knowing what to do and feeling overwhelmed, as if time and opportunities are being wasted.
On April 23, some 45 Pre-Major Advisors (PMAs) gathered together in a sunsoaked room in the Haas Center to brainstorm concrete steps that we, as advisors, can take to help students navigate these kinds of experiences. On the forefront of everyone’s mind was the value of resilience and perspective, and the idea that one of the key gifts we can offer an advisee is the chance to cultivate these capacities.
Our conversation lasted for a brief but action-packed hour, and was framed by questions designed to help us generate a tool that we could share on our PMA site. Here, we share highlights and insights from our conversation. If you would like to learn more about our advising conversations, or if you would like to see the resource we developed, please visit the Pre-Major Advising website.
You really have to ask. More importantly, you have to listen attentively to the answer. Too often, even the most informed and well-intentioned advisor can be deceived by a graceful Stanford Duck.
Failure can be as a matter of perception as well as experience. Two students may score 12/100 points on an exam, and one will be devastated while the other shakes it off. In this respect, helping a student develop perspective and resilience can have a big impact, not because it changes the experience but because it changes the student’s understanding and interpretation of that experience.
How can an advisor create space in the conversation for the student to talk about failure, struggle or disappointment? One way is by asking open-ended questions:
What is going well for you?
How does that experience compare with this other one? Did you approach them differently?
Can you identify what didn’t work and why?
If you could advise your past self, what would you say?
Remember, patience and a comfort with silence are useful tools. Students are more likely to share their struggles and challenges if you express your sincere interest in how they are doing, listen attentively to their answers, and if they are confident that your advising relationship is a safe space for them to be honest or vulnerable.
Strategies for helping a student navigate the experience of failure fall into two categories: transactional and transformational.
Transactional strategies focus on the circumstance at hand by conveying where and how the student can access an appropriate resource, for example: their Academic Director, CAPS, the Resilience Project, the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, or CTL tutoring. An advisor can also help by encouraging the student to approach a course instructor to get clarification about whether his or her perceptions are even accurate; sometimes the Stanford student who believes he is failing is, in fact, earning a B-.
Some strategies are transformational, helping the student to reframe her experience and to recognize her own agency and learning. We can do this by asking questions that help her connect what she is thinking to what she is feeling, such as: What is the impact of this, and what are the alternatives? What is at stake? What have I lost, and what have I learned?
Remember, opportunity may be postponed, but it is rarely foreclosed. Some students may need to be reminded or helped to realize that this one incident does not define or trap them.
It's important to understand what is NOT helpful as well as what is helpful. Here are a few highlights:
Don’t make assumptions.
Don’t denigrate, dismiss, or disrespect what she is experiencing, thinking and/or feeling.
Don’t shut down dialogue by talking too much.
Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. If your struggling student has failed to meet the requirements of her academic probation, is she facing academic suspension? Ask her about it (gently).
Bad timing. The moment when your advisee is reeling from failure is not the moment to say that she probably should have taken Chemistry 31A and not 31X, or to tell him that he should have gone to the Hume Center.
Empathy is good, and sometimes it can be helpful to share your own experiences, but remember: it’s not about you.
Affirm her feelings and experience, and expressing empathy.
Acknowledge the obvious. Is the student crying? Offer a tissue and say, “I can see that you are really upset about this.”
Suggest appropriate resources.
Alice Petty is the Director of Pre-Major Advising in UAR, Undergraduate Advising and Research at Stanford.
Pushing Through Failure Leads to Learning Success (Jan. 8, 2014 blog post)
Getting Inside Students' Minds (April 3, 2014 blog post)