Making Failure Harder Work Than Passing

A rigorous intervention pushes students who might be satisfied with a D to aim higher.

By Angela Campbell


Chemistry seems to inspire a D mentality: A significant number of students just want to pass the class to meet their graduation requirement, and do it with as little effort as possible.

Take Evelyn, for example. A junior in my chemistry class in the spring of 2015, Evelyn was bright, but she didn’t see chemistry as relevant to her present or future, so she kept her head low, didn’t engage with the material, missed about 20 percent of the class, and seemed to target a grade of 60 percent. That was at the beginning of the year.

By the end of the term, Evelyn was sitting in the front row, volunteering to demonstrate how to solve problems, and getting frustrated with herself when her final grade in the class was a B.

Evelyn’s grade had gone from a 60 percent to an 85 percent, but the real changes that I saw in her were much more rewarding than an improved grade point average—she was engaged in learning, taking risks, and working harder than she had once believed she could.

Many students will avoid working hard in a class that they see as challenging because of the risk involved. If they work hard and fail, they’ve proven their inadequacy. But if they don’t work hard and manage to get a D, their pride remains intact and they haven’t lost anything. That’s why I make failing harder work than passing.

Turning “I Can’t” Into “I Can”

Here’s the typical learning cycle for a unit in my chemistry class.

1. I present the students with a list of learning objectives for the unit. The list is short and worded as “I can” statements. For example, these are some of the objectives for the unit on dimensional analysis and the mole (Holt Chapters 7 and 3):

  • I can identify the mole as the unit used to count particles, and use Avogadro’s number to convert between moles and particles. (7.1)

  • I can calculate the molar mass of an element or compound. (3.4)

  • I can perform molar conversions (use the Mole Road Map). (3.4)

2. There are guided practice opportunities for students on each of these objectives. I also use formative assessments, which can be homework, quizzes, or labs. They count for very little in the grade. The point of these assessments is to give kids a lot of practice with the material in a low-risk environment, and to provide feedback on their progress toward mastering the objectives.

3. Students prepare for the summative assessment. After a period of guided practice, formative assessment, feedback, and review for each objective, the students get ready for the unit test. This summative assessment is weighted heavily in determining the grade, so we practice the types of questions they’ll encounter on it.

4. Students take the summative assessment. A passing grade is 70 percent. Students who don’t pass have to retake the assessment. I give them a test map like the one below showing which objectives they didn’t master. The test map is accompanied by an intervention worksheet organized by objective. Students are expected to complete the worksheet sections that they need to practice in order to improve their score.

A test map for the objectives on the mole outlined above.

©Angela Campbell

Differentiation and Incentive

The final stage of the learning cycle is where instruction is truly differentiated. Students who are required to retake their test must show me their completed intervention worksheet so I can see if they’re getting closer to the targets. Usually they raise their grade to a passing score on the first retake. Sometimes it takes a couple of rounds, but they have a time limit: They have to finish the retake cycle before the next unit test.

Students who score below 90 percent but have passed the assessment may also go through this cycle. Many students in the 70–89 percent band opt to do the intervention and retake the test.

Students who are content to score at or below 60 percent are faced with extra work they wouldn’t have to do if they scored just 10 points higher. This cycle helps them understand that, if they can do the work required to get 70 percent, it’s not much more work to get an even higher grade. And the progress is addictive.

This isn’t a canned curriculum. I write my own tests, quizzes, test maps, intervention worksheets, homework assignments, and labs. I use sample questions from the state tests as a guide for the types of questions to include on my exams. I do all of the grading and fill out the test maps by hand. It’s time consuming, and I have to take work home with me every single day. I do my grading while my own children do their homework. While this learning cycle works, it requires a lot of effort. But I think the final result is worth all that effort.


For the past two years, I’ve been teaching chemistry and physics in an International Baccalaureate program at a school in Albania. My own children have been students in my classes. I’ve continued to use this method of instruction with intervention and retesting, and I’ve also added rewriting lab reports for the B and C rubrics as part of the IB Science Criteria.

More than 90 percent of my students are English language learners, and they definitely appreciate the chance to retake their assessments and use the feedback I give them. One of the Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills that the IB program emphasizes is giving and receiving meaningful feedback. The method I outline above provides an excellent opportunity for students to work on this ATL skill.

In addition, the Learner Profile for IB students includes the attribute of Risk Taker. I think students who believe teachers are willing to help them learn from their mistakes are more likely to be risk takers and invest the time and energy needed to be successful. So all the effort still seems worthwhile.


This is a great read on goal setting. I know it deals with New Year's resolutions, but setting goals is an important part of learning. 

Goal Setting for the New Year

With the new year coming up, there’s a good chance you’re coming up with some resolutions, which is why I wrote the following blog post.
Personally, I like the idea of coming up with a few really easy New Year’s Resolutions just to make it easier when I bomb in another area. I think this year I might make a resolution to eat breakfast every day (for what it’s worth, I always eat breakfast).
Anyway, one of the things I’ve noticed is that most New Year’s Resolutions focus on a specific, tangible product. Run a marathon. Write a novel. Lost a certain number of pounds. You get the idea. While there’s nothing wrong with these types of goals, there’s another type of goal that is just as important: process goals. These are the goals that allow us to develop habits and rituals.

The Two Types of Goals
Here’s a brief overview of the two types of goals:
  • Product goals focus on the destination while process goals focus on the journey.
  • Product goals tend to be short-term but process goals tend to be long-term.
  • Product goals are project-oriented while process goals are designed to build habits.
  • Product goals stick to firm deadlines while process goals stick to consistent routines.
  • Product goals define success by the completion of great work.
  • By contrast, process goals define success as growth in one’s skills and abilities.
So, what does this look like? If your goal involves running, a product goal might be finishing a marathon while a process goal might be committing to run for 45 minutes every day. If you’re a writer, a product goal might be publishing a novel while a process goal might be a daily habit of 500 words per day. Neither approach is wrong. Both product goals and process goals are important for success. We need to get finish projects and build lasting habits.

Missing the Process-Oriented Goals
For the longest time, I focused on product-oriented goals. These goals were outcome-based, with a strong emphasis on finishing specific tasks by specific dates. An example might be, “Write one chapter every three days” or “post four blog posts per week.” Just to clarify, these goals were not extrinsic. They weren’t based on the success or failure of something I made (such as “write a bestseller”). Instead, they were deeply internal.
These product-oriented goals worked on some level. I was highly productive. However, when I focused entirely on finishing a task, I didn’t enjoy the journey. Also, when a task took longer than anticipated, I would rush through the next phase and the quality would diminish.
On a more personal level, when I experienced unexpected interruptions, I found myself feeling irritated by the “unproductive” moments of life. Stare at the stars? There’s no time. I’ve got a chapter I promised myself I’d finish by tomorrow. Play an impromptu game of Uno with my kids? I have a project to finish.
About two years ago, I embraced process-oriented goals. Instead of saying, “I’m going to run 25 miles this week,” I said, “I’m setting aside 40 minutes five days a week to go running.” If I run slower, fine. If I run faster, okay. If something comes up and I can’t get it done, that’s fine. It’s not about mileage. It’s about setting a routine and forming a habit.
Instead of saying, “I’m going to make two videos per week,” I’m saying, “I want to spend about a half an hour a day working on sketchy videos.” I had weeks last year when I knocked out 2-4 videos and other stretches when it just didn’t happen. But it didn’t matter. My goal was to improve my craft.
In other words, I’m being less disciplined about specific results and more disciplined about my schedule. Because I am doing fewer projects, I have more flexibility when urgent tasks come up and I have to change my plans. Moreover, I am able to work more leisurely on creative projects. There’s no pressure attached to it. When I placed the journey above the destination, I discovered that my goals were not destinations at all. They had become habits. They were sacred rituals that enabled me to do the creative work that I love without thinking too hard about results.

Product Goals Still Matter
For a few months, I focused solely on process-oriented goals. Within a few weeks, I felt less motivated. True, there was less pressure. But there was also less focus. I learned something about myself. I need project goals. I thrive on deadlines. I enjoy the satisfaction of finishing specific projects. I was the most motivated to run when I trained for a marathon and I am more motivated to write when I am writing a book. Whether I like it or not, I have specific deadlines connected to the courses I’m taking for my doctorate.
Most projects require some kind of planning. There are times when specific tasks need to be finished, such as the syllabus for an upcoming course or the prep work for an upcoming keynote. In these moments, I still set product-oriented goals. But I also have process-oriented goals that help me form habits. In other words, these two types of goals are actually complementary. When I am doing long-term work with flexible deadlines, I am going to stick to process-oriented goals. However, there are moments when I have an exciting short-term project and I need to allow for a chaotic schedule where I throw myself into the project for a short time and passionately finish the tasks.
In the past, however, I had packed my schedule with these product-oriented goals and I set deadline-driven goals for every creative work I tackled. In the process, I failed to create the routines and habits that would allow me to thrive. Now, as I continue to focus on process-oriented goals, I have the space to occasionally take on a product-oriented goal and pursue a creative work quickly, with reckless abandon.