Category Archives: Cause of Academic Failure

Forgiveness from Failure

I have been enjoying Paul Tough’s important book on learning, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”  There is so much to chew on in this provocative book, but one of the most interesting and difficult chapters, I think, is “How to Think.”

Here, Tough uses the case study of a Chess teacher named Elizabeth Spiegel.  Spiegel is a great coach to middle schoolers learning the game and competing at a high level.  Tough tells the story of Sebastian Garcia and how he lost a game during a tournament.  Spiegel dissects what went wrong, and she criticizes Sebastian for rushing a critical move that inevitably led to his defeat.

Tough writes, “Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them.” (p. 115)  He quotes Spiegel: “I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.” (p. 116)

She goes on to explain that she uses what Tough calls “calibrated meanness” to push her students, showing them that she takes them seriously enough to demand they improve.  Tough summarizes: “Students were being challenged to look deeply at their mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently.” (p. 121)

While Tough argues that Spiegel is teaching her students grit, curiosity, self-control and optimism (p. 122), I would say she is teaching them how to forgive themselves.  Making mistakes, academic and otherwise, is a profound reality of human existence.  It may also be the toughest part of being human.  So teaching our children, and by extension ourselves, how to get passed our mistakes may be the greatest gift we can bestow.

What I think Spiegel is doing is pushing her students to deeply understand their mistakes, digging until they see a failed moment of recollection or judgment, the fork in the road that ended with a mistake.  By owning this process of criticism, her students can learn that the mechanics of decision-making can be studied.  That study isolates the immediate cause, keeping another human strength and failing—the ability to generalize—at bay.

It is when we generalize about mistakes—“I’m not good at Math!” “I am an idiot!”—that we destroy ourselves.  But if we keep them isolated and clearly understood, we may have found a path to forgiveness.

I remain stymied by the challenges of forgiveness.  I think it’s a key to so much happiness, and yet it is elusive.  But this story of Spiegel and Sebastian offers some hope.  Dig deep, think hard, demand more, resist generalization and forgiveness may be waiting.



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Filed under Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, Coping with Failure

International Student Success

This week in Washington, an extraordinary group of embassy officials and university representatives gathered at the University of California Center to discuss many issues around international education.  The Washington International Education Conference, sponsored by the Washington International Education Council (headed by Bill Fish), gathers each year to exchange ideas and to expose university officials to the diplomatic community.

I will be writing several blogs about this experience and the issues raised there.  Here, I’d like to touch on some ideas I shared in my own address to the conference.  (Bader Address to WIEC January 2013).  I shared with participants my observation that universities tend to focus on non-academic issues when supporting their international students.  These include securing a visa, getting to campus, and becoming culturally acclimated.  While these services are critical, they do not directly support academic success.  Indeed, internationals face a series of challenges:

They are focused on outcomes, not process.  Many traditional education systems, such as those in China and India, require students to excel at standardized tests.  So international students tend to be focused on final exams, rather than class participation and interim assignments.  This misunderstanding can lead to failure.

They are very dependent on their families.  This is understandable, so far from home, but their families can misunderstand the American college environment.  They may insist a student major in Biology, for example, to prepare for medical school, when other avenues are open.  If their student has little interest in Biology, that can cause problems.

They don’t understand a liberal education.  Internationals often focus on accomplishment and credentialing–which is understandable.  But they fail to realize or even appreciate the many learning opportunities of a liberal, exploratory education.

They think careers and majors are the same thing.  Majors are a teaching tool in American colleges, not a road to expertise.  They poorly predict professional choices.  And yet internationals insist that some majors are more worthwhile, even when lesser known programs (say, History) might be a better fit and result in more success.

They rely on memory.  Many internationals believe that absorbing and the regurgitating information is their primary intellectual goal.  Yet American professors are expecting higher levels of thinking, where problems are solved and connections are made–even in the sciences.

They are vulnerable to failure.  We are so impressed by our international visitors that we often overlook their human frailties.  Determined as they are, they are no immune to personal difficulties and failings.  We must treat them as the sons and daughters of our neighbors, caring for them as we would our own children.

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Filed under Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, Choosing a Major, International Exchange

Dean’s List Podcast #12: Coping with Failure in College

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Filed under Academic Advising, Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, GPA

Dean’s List Podcast #11: Why Students Struggle in College

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Filed under Academic Success, Athletics, Cause of Academic Failure, Pre-Medical Students, Study Skills

Dean’s List Podcast #9: Integrity and Cheating in College

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Filed under Cause of Academic Failure, Cheating and Integrity, GPA

College Athletics and the Power of Curiosity

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has wisely raised concerns about graduation rates by college athletes, particularly the basketball players now in the NCAA basketball tournaments.  Sports fans like me enjoy these great, national contests, but we need to remember these young people are still students who would benefit from a successful college degree.

 As we struggle to treat athletes like young people rather than entertainers, we need to think hard about why so many have difficulty with their studies.  Certainly, the NCAA and colleges devote a lot of resources to fixing this, from creating eligibility requirements to providing tutors and supervised study times.

 My own thinking is shaped by watching a culture of followers among athletes.  Athletes make great leaders, to be sure, but they are first followers—of their coaches.  Believing in the team and in a common mission is important to victory, so athletes learn how to follow the pack.  That feeling of solidarity is powerful, enjoyable, and exciting.

 Serious athletes—and all college athletes at every division level today are serious—spend most of their time with teammates.  In addition to practicing, playing and traveling together, they almost always live together.  They join the same fraternities and sororities.  They may know no other students.

 So it should be no surprise that they tend to make the same academic choices.  They take the same classes.  They congregate around the same majors, such as Economics and Political Science.  They study together.  They seek out the same skills, many of them in business, thinking they need them for careers.

 And here lies the problem.  Where solidarity might work athletically, it does not academically.  When athletes homogenize their studies, they lose the chance to grow intellectually and to find subjects they love.  They see their classes as an extension of their team, when classes should be a place to explore alone.  When you pick classes because your friends are there, you are not developing ownership of your education.  You are not nurturing your natural curiosity to examine and understand the world.

 And without that curiosity, the motivation to go to class, to do the hard work, to ask good questions all evaporates.  When athletes do this, their studies lose meaning and importance.  Then they fail out, drop out or lose their eligibility.  And, of course, they don’t graduate.

 If you are a student athlete, then, think about what you want to learn.  What makes you ask questions?  What would you like to know?  In your opinion, what should an educated person know? 

 Your teammates and coaches cannot answer those questions.  Only you can.


Filed under Academic Success, Athletics, Cause of Academic Failure, Majors and Careers

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colleges and Mental Health

The terrible slayings in Tucson, Arizona have opened many important debates.  Of special interest to me is the discussion over whether Pima Community College could have done more to help or deter Jared Loughner.  Arizona has a strong mental health system and laws that allow for reporting of troubled individuals.  Yet Pima CC did not take advantage of that. 


It is important to know and appreciate that colleges across the country devote extraordinary resources to their student’s mental health.  While this may be more difficult in a non-residential setting like Pima, higher education institutions recognize the moral and medical imperative to provide such services.  Pima is accountable for whatever care they provided–or failed to provide–Loughner during his time as a student.

But he was not a student at the time of the shooting.  Loughner was expelled from Pima in the fall of 2010, for violations of the code of conduct.  We now know those outbursts were caused by his mental illness–a common cause for academic distress and failure.  And rather than address this problem, they got rid of him.  This adds to the case that Pima could have done a better job.

But me make two points to explain their behavior.  First, Pima officials likely focused their attention, appropriately, on the safety and comfort of their students, faculty and staff.  If one student needed to go to further that mission, so be it. 

And second–and this is critical–once expelled, he was out of sight, out of mind.  Pima probably forgot about him, when they could have alerted mental health officials, and handed the problem to them.  But it is easy to lose track of students who are not enrolled and easy to think they are not your responsibility.  Colleges face enough challenges with the people they have.  Worrying about the ones they don’t is beyond their capacity.

But this tragedy is reason for pause, to reevaluate such thinking.

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Filed under Cause of Academic Failure, Student Affairs