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Martin Covington is Professor of the Graduate School in Psychology at UC Berkeley, and holds the prestigious Berkeley Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education. He is also Senior Research Psychologist at the Institute for Personality and Social Psychology. He is author of some eight books and numerous research articles and papers concerned with his various research interests including human motivation, creativity, problem solving and thinking, the fear of failure, and self-esteem dynamics. He is past president of the International Society for Test Anxiety Research. His teaching honors include the Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award; the Award for Outstanding Mentorship of Graduate Student Instructors; the Phi Beta Kappa Award: Outstanding University Instructor of the Year; and the UC Berkeley Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education.

Video of the Presentation

Martin Covington addressing the How Students Learn Working Group at UC Berkeley on March 29, 2011.

Summary of the Presentation

Motivation for Learning

Professor Covington began by discussing the reasons that students give for learning material in their undergraduate courses. When asked what makes them study and work hard in college, undergraduates typically say that they are trying to get the best grade possible. Grades, in fact, are the primary focus of most students. Only as secondary reasons do students list the desires to become competent, to prove themselves, and to avoid mistakes. Learning about the content of the course for its own sake is the last of the reasons students give. As a result, students’ goals tend to be mismatched with their instructors’ objectives; as instructors, we hope to encourage students to value learning for its own sake, with grades as a secondary reflection of that learning. In order to convey this message, however, we have significant work to do in changing the culture of the classroom.

Students’ tendency to focus excessively on their grades is related, Covington explained, to their fear of failure. Students often see the process of being graded as an evaluation not of the work they have done but of their personal worth. Good grades, to many students, imply not hard work but inherent ability, while poor grades imply inability. As a result, they try to avoid low and failing grades because they assume such grades would mean they are incompetent — not simply that they need to work harder, or differently, in order to learn.

One common defensive strategy students employ is to separate the grades they earn from their perception of their own abilities.

Managing Fear of Failure

Covington described two composite case studies that show typical ways students try to separate their grades, in their own minds, from their abilities. The first is “Jack,” the “excuse maker,” a student who did well as a “large frog in a small pond” in high school but now that he is a “small frog in a large pond” as an undergraduate at a big university, he no longer stands out in the same way. Jack begins to fall behind in his work, at least in his own estimation. He feels constantly under pressure because he is continually procrastinating and blowing off assignments. He may feel the “impostor syndrome.” He begins to take on so much work that there is little time in which he could complete any individual task. He equates feeling busy to feeling important, but because he is too busy, he can tell himself that his falling grades don’t reflect on his true ability, and therefore they don’t reflect his true worth.

The second composite case study, “Jill,” is the “overstriver.” Jill tries to avoid failure by succeeding at ever more difficult and prestigious tasks. She has the same fear of failure as Jack, but she is poised or better prepared for success. She is probably a student who was given accolades throughout high school. All her strategies focus on succeeding on assignments, in courses, and in school. Because grades are competitive, there are fewer rewards than there are students. However, almost nobody can win every prize, earn every possible A+, or get every scholarship they apply for. Jill is forced to undergo ever more Herculean efforts to learn and to apply herself to unremitting study. Eventually, in spite of this (or perhaps because of the pressure she is putting on herself), she will “fail,” at least by her own terms, in some way, and she won’t be emotionally prepared for it.

Both “Jack” and “Jill,” general personality types derived from Covington’s extensive experience working with undergraduates, are excessively fearful of failure. Both of them also overvalue grades — or, to put it differently, they are both hampered in their learning because they connect grades with their personal worth, rather than seeing grades, as instructors would like them to do, as assessment tools that can guide their learning strategies.

Mismatched Expectations

Because students perceive grades in this way, they also tend to have a very different view of what their own and their instructor’s roles and responsibilities should be in a given course. First-year students, and many other students beyond the freshmen level, tend to believe that it is their responsibility simply to follow directions and their role to absorb course content. They think that instructors should simply present and explain material, and that instructors are responsible for making that material interesting, relevant, and fun. Although there may be some truth to these perceptions, most instructors want to do far more — to encourage active engagement with the material, to foster students’ ability to self-monitor their learning, and to create a safe environment in which students can be inquisitive learners. How can we change the culture of the classroom to make these goals clearer to students and to mitigate the negative aspects of grade focus and fear of failure?


Professor Covington concluded by calling for a problem-based approach to course design. In his graduate-level Psychology 290I course, Covington asks students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, “What would a course in your field look like that seeks to integrate content mastery goals with motivational principles which enhance and sustain a love of learning?” Although there may be many answers to this question, Covington encouraged real-world tasks and metacognitive work that helps students connect their learning to the real world and evaluate their learning for its own sake.