Fear of failing and not having the right answer is a common problem of STEM students. Especially if your class is their first STEM experience. In most other courses, students are expected to have the “right” answer and if they are paying attention and working hard, they should be able to get a “good” grade on their assessment, but this is not how STEM works.
Failure is a central part of STEM. The foundation for STEM education is the engineering design process. There are many variations of the process but all true engineering processes should be iterative and focus on developing solutions to a problem and then improving the solution. (Find the one I like to use in middle school here!)
In STEM, students are NOT expected to have a perfect solution on the first try. They may never have a perfect solution. But by going through the process they should develop a solution and determine how they could make the solution even better. This is hard for students to grasp until they experience it.
What does fear of failure in STEM look like?
I’ve had students totally shut down and refuse to continue working on a STEM project because they didn’t know the “right” answer. I’ve had others get angry and frustrated when their first idea doesn’t pan out, and I’m sure you’ve encountered similar situations or if you’re new to STEM, you will soon!
How do we move past this common problem of STEM students?
So… how do we overcome this common problem of STEM students and help our students embrace STEM thinking?
Here are some things that have worked for me:
- Emphasize the process over the product
STEM is about problem solving, and we should focus on helping students become better problem solvers. This means explicitly teaching students strategies for solving problems, assessing students’ problem solving skills, and giving specific feedback around their attempts at problem solving. An engineering design process rubric can help you and your students focus on the problem solving process.
- Practice with smaller low-stakes challenges
Jumping into a big weeks-long STEM project right off the bat is intimidating. Instead try to plan a few small, simple challenges at the beginning of your course. It doesn’t feel as stressful when a prototype you’ve only been working on for 10 minutes fails. This will also give you an opportunity to see which of your students may struggle with fear of failure and allow you to do some coaching around perseverance. This leads me to tip #3.
- Talk about perseverance
As a class, discuss what perseverance looks like and what it feels like. Call it out when you see students persevering in the classroom. Give students opportunities to shout one another out for persevering. Even students who take to STEM naturally will encounter a project that is challenging. It’s important to have everyone bought into the culture of perseverance.
- Model overcoming failure
As STEM teachers, we are often learning new technologies as we use them with our students. You will make mistakes, and that is OK. Use it as a teaching opportunity and show students how you go about solving the problem. As they say “actions speak louder than words.”
- Don’t give answers but scaffold as needed
When students are really struggling, it’s easy to feel like you should just give them an answer. However, when we do this, our students miss out on this opportunity to practice perseverance and create their own solution. Instead, when students really need a push, you can guide them to identify points of failure and help them identify ways to improve their prototype by asking questions. “What happened when you did X? Why do you think Y happened? What does the project criteria say about Z?” In this way, you can guide their thinking and help them move forward in the process, but your students will still have ownership over their final design.
You are imparting life skills
One of the most challenging and best parts of being a STEM teacher is that you get to cultivate so many important life skills in your students. With intentional planning and lots of opportunities to practice, you’ll help them move past this common problem of STEM students. Then you’ll be ready to dive in and tackle the big problems and watch your students flourish.