Fear, Failure and Memory.

Sometimes I think we neglect the impact anxiety and fear has on our students. With the sudden interest everyone seems to have in cognitive psychology (usually referred to as ‘cognitive science’ by the political elite*) there is, quite rightly, a growing fascination with how we can help learners to recall all the information we’ve been filling their heads with.

…but what use are these strategies if our students are so terrified of failing that they can barely recall their names (let alone the components of the working memory model – I know, ironic isn’t it)?

Alright, I’m being melodramatic.

…or am I?

Consider the following quote from the book ‘everyone is talking about’):

A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting. In the latter instance, students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety.

Make it Stick (Brown, Rodieger & McDaniel, 2013)

It seems that fear of failure is having a detrimental impact on working memory capacity because the student is directing resources away from memory and into the monitoring process – so the student is so busy thinking about performance and the monitoring of possible mistakes that there is little working memory capacity left to take care of the job in hand.

It also seems to be worse for girls…

One study investigating anxiety and performance in mathematics found that anxiety and worry in females was much more likely to negatively impact on working memory. More specifically, the researchers identified a causal chain from the worry component of anxiety to visuospatial working memory to maths performance, with worry placing more strain on visuospatial working memory in females (Ganley & Vasilyeva, 2014)

Those students who are less test anxious also appear to be more resilient and perform better on tests than those with increased levels of test anxiety (Putwain, Nicholson, Connors, & Woods, 2013).

Fear of failure is also more likely to lead to cognitive strategies such as self handicapping which in turn further perpetuate failure (Bartels & Herman, 2011)

Implications of this kind of research into emotion and learning are quite clear – rather than ignoring or eliminating the fear experienced by students, educationalists should encourage more positive ways of dealing with the fear of failure. Students need to fail (I’ve been banging on about that for a while now) but the ‘idea’ of failure needs a serious re-framing. While we might not yet be ready for a French-style ‘Festival of Errors’ or a Californian ‘FailCon’ (after all, let’s face it, no Brit wants to admit they’ve cocked up!), there is certainly a need for some cognitive readjustment.

* Michael Gove likes to use the term ‘cognitive science’ – I suspect it’s his way of hiding the fact that he thinks psychology is neither a science nor a proper subject.


Bartels, J., & Herman, W. (2011). Fear of Failure, Self-Handicapping, and Negative Emotions in Response to Failure. Online Submission. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED524320
Brown, P, Rodieger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2013). Make it stick. Belknap.
Ganley, C. M., & Vasilyeva, M. (2014). The role of anxiety and working memory in gender differences in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 105–120. doi:10.1037/a0034099
Putwain, D. W., Nicholson, L. J., Connors, L., & Woods, K. (2013). Resilient children are less test anxious and perform better in tests at the end of primary schooling. Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 41–46. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.09.010



One thought on “Fear, Failure and Memory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s