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Brilliant minds, anxious souls: Top students discuss their fear-of-failure demons after Pisa findings

SINGAPORE — Yulia (not her real name) could have gone to the School of the Arts, or transferred to Lasalle College of the Arts to pursue her interests in music and theatre.

The Pisa results released on Tuesday (Dec 3), in fact, put Singapore students as among the most fearful of failure in the world, even as the same test also ascertained them to be among the world’s brightest.

The Pisa results released on Tuesday (Dec 3), in fact, put Singapore students as among the most fearful of failure in the world, even as the same test also ascertained them to be among the world’s brightest.

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SINGAPORE — Yulia (not her real name) could have gone to the School of the Arts, or transferred to Lasalle College of the Arts to pursue her interests in music and theatre.

But the 18-year-old student stuck to the science stream at Hwa Chong Institution (HCI), studying biology, chemistry, mathematics and literature. “I still think it is safer to have my A-Levels in case I fail in the arts because it is so hard and competitive,” she said.

Such a psyche that drove her to think that way was recently put in the spotlight after the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test found that three in four Singapore students grapple intimately with a fear of failure.

The Pisa results released on Tuesday (Dec 3), in fact, put Singapore students as among the most fearful of failure in the world, even as the same test also ascertained them to be among the world’s brightest.

Specifically, Singapore has the highest percentage of 15-year-olds (78 per cent) viewing failure as something that would cast doubt into their plans for the future – well above the 54 per cent average for the 37 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries who took the test.

And while Singapore is not the top country when it comes to worrying about what others would think if they fail, the percentage is still consistently high – 72 per cent here said they would worry, while the average for OECD countries is 56 per cent.

So, what causes students here to be afraid to fail?

Students say it has a lot to do with the perception of lower self-worth, or that they are not good enough, that comes with failure.

‘GOVERNED BY FEAR’

Returning to the story of Yulia, although her intelligence had taken her through the doors of one of the top junior colleges in Singapore, she had, in fact, struggled with an anxiety disorder from age nine.

Its onset, she said, was not caused by parents but by the highly-competitive school environments that she had been exposed to from age seven. Before entering HCI, she was in “elite” schools such as Nan Hua Primary and Nanyang Girls’ School, where one is surrounded by high achievers.

The pressure to do extremely well was great, she said, to the point where there were times when she stopped studying for an exam altogether for fear of not scoring well enough.

“It stops me from achieving what I am capable of, and puts me in an unhealthy mental state governed by fear, questioning all the ‘what if’s of the outcomes of my tests and exams, and my process of revision,” she said.

And there are teachers whose actions only made things worse.

Yulia recalled how one of her former teachers at HCI had made the class review a spreadsheet of their results for every test they had taken for a particular subject.

While the teacher’s intentions might be to generate healthy competition and stretch students to their full potential, it had an adverse effect on her. “Seeing (my) peers’ grades is just so intimidating because comparison is inevitable,” she said.

Nineteen-year-old Jaren Ong, who recently graduated from Saint Andrew’s Junior College with three As at the GCE A-Level examination last year, concurs. The reactions he got after failing an exam were often: “Why didn’t you study?”, “Can you take your academics seriously?”, or “Do you want a good job in the future or not?”

But when a student fails, teachers need to find the root cause, he said. “Is it due to a lack of motivation? Why is there a lack of motivation? The student doesn’t like the subject? How can we help the student gain an interest in the subject?”

“I studied so that I could avoid being judged to be a failure,” he continued. “This should not be why a child goes to school. It’s a weak source of motivation.”

Former school teacher Ken Teo, 43, noted that some schools would make exam papers more difficult to prod students to work harder. This is unnecessary and gives students an inaccurate picture of their competence, said Mr Teo, who is now a private tutor.

COMPULSION TO OVER-PRACTISE, OVER-REVISE FOR A GRADE

Top psychology student for Nanyang Technological University’s class of 2019, Mr Chun Win Ee, might be revered for his perfect grade point averages in both university and polytechnic.

But not many know that the former JC dropout struggles with a strong fear of failure as well. The 27-year-old said he would “over-practise” and not stop his revision until he could memorise every bit of information from cover to cover. He would do and redo practice papers until he got full marks.

His efforts were, however, counterproductive when it comes to subjects like mathematics, where concepts were not as easy to grasp to him since primary school.

“I didn’t want to let people down and disappoint them with poor results. That pressured me to want to perform, but ironically was also why I wouldn’t do well,” he said, recalling that his mind would go blank when tackling math problems.

His fear of failing then led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. He avoided math and convinced himself that he was “not a math person”. “Naturally, that was a terrible mindset to have and contributed to why I continued to do poorly,” he said.

It was not something that he easily got over. During his statistics examination at university, he told TODAY he had to spend the first 15 minutes of his exam managing his anxiety, using meditation and breathing techniques.

For Raffles Institution (RI) alumnus Daryl Yang, 26, getting good grades was a huge part of how he defined himself, and that only exacerbated his fear of failure, he said.

He became occupied with proving that he did not just get lucky scoring 261 for PSLE, and, having managed to enter RI after an appeal, that he belonged to the school.

He became very risk-averse, dropping literature and biology at Secondary Two even though he had more interest in those subjects, and instead stuck to those that he knew he would do better in.

And when he did not perform as well as he had expected, he took it hard upon himself. “Doing less well made me feel like I was useless or worthless,” he said.

Mr Yang only started shedding this fear of failure when he started university at Yale-NUS College, where he was not graded for examinations, only for projects and research papers.

“This allowed us to explore our interests and think more deeply about whatever we were learning,” said the fresh graduate with a double degree in law and liberal arts.

FEAR OF FAILURE PERVASIVE IN SINGAPORE SOCIETY

Besides the experiences of the four students TODAY interviewed, the encounters of psychologists here made them conclude that the fear of failure is pervasive in the Singapore society.

Clinical psychologist Joel Yang said he often saw students with severe fears of failure who refused to go to school, and even skipped exams. “It is sad because we see kids who are very bright but underperform or avoid exams for fear of not aceing them,” he said.

Developmental psychologist Jeslyn Lim said 70 to 80 per cent of the students she sees as part of her practice have some aversion to failing, out of which 20 per cent are at the extreme.

She is concerned as a fear of failure can cause a delay in a student’s cognitive development, which includes attention span, memory and reasoning among other mental processes.

What could happen when a generation of fearful kids grow up? Dr Lim painted a future where doctors might avoid performing tricky surgeries, and educators might find it challenging to teach with confidence.

The former school teacher, Mr Teo, said that while a fear of failure drives performance on paper qualifications, it breeds “mediocrity, pencil pushers, and status-quo and reactionary mindsets”.

“These prices are way too heavy to pay to score high in reading, mathematics and science, given how the world will be taken over by AI (artificial intelligence),” he added. “We need resilient people who are not afraid of failures, who push boundaries, who envision possibilities.”

He laments: “If students are afraid to fail in school, how can they learn to face inevitable failures in life?”

Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan said it cannot be right that children here only learn if they are confident that they will not fail. He said this issue is particularly important at a time when the imperative to be innovative, bold and transformative is a national objective.

In spite of that objective, “we will have a society that will only want to attain what they are confident of attaining, and not have to risk or deal with failure”, he said. “This is a recipe for national malaise and stagnation — not just economically but also in all spheres of what we can describe as human endeavour.”

Critiquing the widespread mentality among parents to encourage their children to only pursue subjects they would do best in, he said the easy option reflects a “stunted growth mindset”.

“We need a significant mindset shift so that our students will enjoy learning and not fear failure, and this growth mindset will be with them throughout their lives,” he added.

THE CONCEPT OF ‘CONTROLLED FAILURE’

The idea of letting children fail a little is making some parents uncomfortable.

Mdm Iris Sim, 39, told TODAY she is investing a lot in her children, aged six to nine, to ensure that they do not fall behind in the “brand name” primary schools she had managed to enrol them in.

After all, she had gone out of her way to secure a home within a 1km radius of CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School and Catholic High School to get her children in the doors.

She believes that if kids really have to fail, it should be “within control” or “not too far off the mark”. “In Singapore, you need to study hard to give yourself options, to do what you want,” she said.

The problem, Mdm Sim added, has its roots in Singaporeans being taught that the country has no natural resources, and that people are the nation’s best resources.

“Naturally, parents pour their resources into creating these ‘best resources’, piling on our hopes and putting all our time into it,” she said, pointing to her children. “A lot of pressure then rides on a child not to screw up their chances because it would be tough to get a second chance.”

HOW TO MAKE IT EASIER TO FAIL

In getting the nation to become less allergic to failure, education experts said that teachers’ perceptions must first change.

Dr Timothy Chan, director of the academic and student life divisions at SIM Global Education, said the Ministry of Education should drill into educators that failure is “a part of daily life”, and that “there is nothing so special about failure” that they should become embarrassed by it.

If students were unable to give a correct answer, what is more important is if they learnt from their mistakes, he stressed.

“If the culture is more forgiving and more encouraging, and make it not a big deal when a child is not able to come up with an answer, it sends the message that they don’t become inferior (by failing),” he added.

Agreeing, Dr Jason Tan Eng Thye, an associate professor for policy and leadership studies at the National Institute of Education, said teachers need to recognise that not all students are motivated by fear.

People should also be conscious about viewing failure only in terms of academic outcomes.

Failure, he noted, could come in non-academic areas of school life, such as not being selected for the school team, not winning a trophy, and in interpersonal relationships.

A report card of the future could very well include all these other areas of a student’s development, said Dr Chan.

But Dr Tan cautioned that if implemented prematurely, this could lead to children broadening the list of areas they view themselves to be failing in, such as in sports, cooperativeness and kindness.

“There is always that danger that if you don’t change the fundamental way you think about success and failure, you will just be extending the concept of failure to more areas of life,” said Dr Tan.

He described reversing mindsets as a “long-term pursuit — a process that needs to be undertaken in collaboration with parents”.

Related topics

education failure school exams grades PISA OECD MOE

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