Regardless of when it happens, failure can be a sobering pill to swallow. In higher education, where grades are the coin of the realm, a poor performance could make the recipient ask whether they are college material, if they chose the right major or the correct career path.

A pair of college professors at the University of Texas at El Paso who have dealt with their own early academic failures in different ways are among those who choose to relive those experiences with their students to reassure them that a bad grade, as stinging as it can be, is just another opportunity to learn.

Andrew Fleck, associate professor of English, and Cynthia A. Wiltshire, assistant professor of teacher education, were excellent students at their high schools in California and Virginia, respectively. Both filled their schedules with advanced placement courses. They considered themselves well prepared for college, but both received an academic wake-up call early in their first year of higher education.

As the 2023 spring semester winds down, with its last papers and projects, and final exams starting May 8, the professors want their students – and all students – to realize that a bad grade in a test or a course, if handled responsibly, should become little more than a passing memory.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure students are prepared for the challenges that they’re going to face,” Wiltshire said. “It’s more important than ever that you localize these stories of failure and the solutions to get through them or around them. You may not succeed at every task, but there always is a way around it.”

The UTEP educator added that she shares a tweet from Gaurav Sabnis, associate professor of marketing at Stevens Institute of Technology, a private university in Hoboken, New Jersey, who mentions his lowest academic point with his students. He earned 27% in an engineering exam. He shares the score, “to remind us that almost everyone fails at some point in life, but it isn’t the end of the road.” Approximately 50,000 people have responded to his original tweet.  

Wiltshire said she asked her class why such an admission resonates with people. They responded because everyone fails and because everyone can learn from their mistakes.

“Some of the most successful people strive to fail, because it’s a learning opportunity, just like science,” she said. “To fail is to gain more information and information is powerful.”

Andrew Fleck, associate professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso, shares one or two of his academic misfortunes with his students to let them know that a below average grade is another learning experience. Daniel Perez/El Paso Matters

Fleck, whose parents were administrators at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, attended Arizona State University in Tempe where he pursued undergraduate degrees in English and history. As a freshman, he enrolled in a sophomore-level English class where students learn to critique literature.

The Californian admitted that he was overconfident when he wrote his first paper for the course. He thought the assignment to analyze a piece of poetry was easy, and happily turned in what he thought was a “good” paper. It received a D+. Fleck, who was about four weeks into his freshman year, was shaken and began to question his decision to be an English major.

“I crumbled,” Fleck said.

After he got over the initial shock, Fleck visited with his professor who explained where the paper went wrong and offered significant suggestions on how not to repeat those mistakes. The student took the critique seriously and earned an A grade on the next essay about a month later. He said that the second paper was a major step in his development as an early modernist Renaissance scholar.

“It was as if a light bulb had gone off for me and I really understood what I was doing better,” he said.

Fleck uses the poem that earned him a D+, William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” in his “Introduction to Literary Studies” course, but he uses the story in all of his classes to show how one may overcome failure through desire and diligence.

Wiltshire, the daughter of Bolivian immigrants, is a first-generation college student and first-generation American. While her parents had little formal education, the couple supported their daughter’s enthusiasm for academics. She enrolled at the University of Virginia with a goal to become a medical doctor.

Despite the warnings of a university course adviser, she took two tough chemistry courses along with environmental science courses her first year. The workload, along with her sense of loneliness from being away from home and family for the first time, contributed to her earning two D grades in both chemistry courses.

“I set the bar pretty high for myself,” said Wiltshire, who reasoned that she had taken similar science courses in high school, and these would be just as easy.

She felt ashamed and, as a young Latina woman, could not muster the courage to speak to her professor. She began to doubt if she could navigate college academically, socially or emotionally. She went to tutoring sessions in huge rooms filled with others in the same situation. The important thing she learned from the experience was that many students needed help.

Wiltshire shares this story with her students because she knows that many of them are first generation Americans and/or first-generation college students. While she completed her bachelor’s degree in biology with an environmental science minor, she decided to pursue a career as a teacher because it was a better fit for her social personality.

Student Success, an international, peer-reviewed journal, published in 2019 the results of a study conducted by researchers at several Australian universities that showed the majority of students who experienced academic failure did not seek institutional support, but instead looked for help from peers, friends and family.

According to the journal article, “How Do Students Adapt in Response to Academic Failure,” students based their decisions on their circumstance, mental or emotional mood, and perceptions of their academic institutions. Other factors included a student’s internal drive to complete what he/she started, and the external drive to meet expectations. The authors said that while the majority of the students surveyed showed positive adaptations after their underperformance, many others decided to not change their academic strategies.

Sebastian Arroyos, a senior mathematics major with a minor in secondary education, failed several tests in one of his courses. He said it would help him to know that his professors overcame their own academic struggles. (Dorothy F. Perez/El Paso Matters)

At UTEP, Sebastian Arroyos, a senior mathematics major with a minor in secondary education, said he has had his share of academic setbacks. His discrete math course included four exams and he failed each of them. The Eastside resident attended classes virtually during the COVID months, but could not understand the material. He sought tutoring and met with his professor, who encouraged him to stay the course because his other scores kept his overall grade up.

He said that it would help him to know that his professors struggled academically as he had.

“I’d know that I wasn’t alone and that I can get help,” said Arroyos, who earned a C in the discrete math class.

Fleck and Wiltshire shared other stories of underperformance in graduate school or in the workplace. Both said they depended on peers to help them find their way. Their message is that students need to find the resources – peers, tutors, professors, in person or online – to help them succeed.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.