Is failure good for PR students?

Feedback is a big thing in public relations (and other) education today – with students expecting to get informative comments and advice on any piece of work that is submitted.  This applies even when someone gets a top grade.

I have no problem with this, although finding the time to do this task justice as well as marking, meeting deadlines for external verification, preparing for on-going teaching, etc etc is a challenge – and never recognised in the payment process.

My approach is to prioritise feedback for those who do less well especially where they need to resit work or will benefit for subsequent assignments.  Such students generally welcome assistance in recognising where they can improve and what aspects weren’t to the standard required.

However, I have found some students are quite confrontational and unaccepting of the grades they are awarded and expect justification of the marking, rather than reflecting on their own performance or looking to learn and improve. 

They don’t agree that their work is flawed, even when it demonstrates dreadful use of language, muddled thinking, poor referencing, limited reading (etc etc) – all clearly marked on their work and on assessment/feedback sheets.  They cannot see their own faults and question those with experience who are assessing their work. 

This surprises me as someone who went through education when you simply were told a result and got on with retaking without detailed feedback.  You accepted criticism and dealt with it.

But is there now an expectation of getting a pass and so the onus is on the marker to demonstrate otherwise?   

What does this mean for PR students when they get into the real world?  Where their press releases are likely to be red-penned or binned?  When most pitches and job interviews end in failure as only one consultancy or individual can be successful?  Where clients and bosses are critical and up the ante every time you deliver a good result?

Sometimes I think I am the first person to tell undergraduates that their work isn’t good enough.  I’m told other markers give higher grades – as if that is a reason for me to accept sloppy use of English or poor evidence of thinking.  

Like Gordon Ramsey or other experts on television, I’m confronted with the inexperienced who clearly know better than I do.  Failing isn’t their fault.  Like wannabees in reality shows, they know they will be a star regardless of a lack of willingness to learn, let alone ability, talent or aptitude.

I’m not wishing failure on anyone – but in life, I’ve found rewards come when you are challenged to improve, someone says your work isn’t good enough, or you don’t succeed first time. 

Failure is necessary if we are ever to make breakthoughs – and self-criticism is a great skill to learn. 

In public relations, it is also a matter of reputation.  Mine, the student’s and that of PR itself.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

9 thoughts on “Is failure good for PR students?”

  1. A good friend is the registrar at one of the professional faculties at the University of Toronto. She’s also indicated that today’s students have difficulty accepting “failure” grades and that they often attempt to argue their way into getting better grades.

    She’s prepared to set aside time to speak with such students; however, she’s not prepared to deal with the “helicopter parents” (i.e., the hovering mothers and fathers of Gen Y) who phone and want to argue about their offspring’s poor grades. And what is their excuse for getting involved in the debate? Why, they are paying the tuition fees! (Maybe they should do and hand in the assignments, do the lab work and write the exams, too.)

    Hopefully you aren’t having to find and set aside time for the parents of PR students!

  2. I haven’t yet had to deal with pushy parents – but maybe they are also part of the problem here. I can imagine as children the students have learned that if they keep arguing, mum and dad give in.

  3. Ceri – that’s brilliant, especially the “want fries with that order” comment. It is really bizarre if online social networking is making young people less adept at interpersonal skills. I appreciate that it is a minority, but a worrying trend none the less. A cheesy quotation that my mum likes springs to mind: it is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

  4. Another one my mum quotes to me frequently: you can’t put an old head on young shoulders.

    My son is working front of house in a hotel while he’s doing his highers. I feel it teaches him those all-important interpersonal skills. But, he’s had a fall out with the head chef recently and I pointed out to him that he might not like the guy but he’s got to respect his elders.

    The same respect that I think should go to tutors, who may not necessarily be older, but are extremely knowledgeable in their field.

  5. Jill – I think respect goes both ways, of course. Also it is okay to disagree with others, but as you indicate, the skill is to learn how to continue to work professionally with other people. As tutors, we may not always be right, but if students engage with us appropriately where they have concerns, we can share advice and even learn from them.

  6. I totally agree. As a PR student, I find it more beneficial to receive feedback (good or bad), rather then just getting a pass and a pat on the back. Feedback helps you evolve as a student and a professional. It doesn’t ever feel good to fail, but if some hard feedback helps you in the long run, suck it up and push yourself.

  7. Megan – thanks for your comments. You make a valid point about feedback and I love the phrase “suck it up” – epitomises taking a deep breath beautifully.

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