I Must Get a First! Part 2

In part 1, I introduced the notion of irrational beliefs in students and the potential use of REBT principles to help students to deal with adversity and pressure. In part 2 I will outline some useful strategies that I have used to help students to think more rationally about success and failure. Part 2 will expressly focus on two irrational beliefs.

  1. Demandingness. I must…You must…I have to…They should…
  2. Awfulising. It’s terrible…its awful…it’s the end of the world!…


Just because you want to get a first, how does it follow that you “must”? Don’t get me wrong, for some students getting a first is very important. When I was an undergraduate here at Staffordshire University, getting a first to me was the most important thing in the world at that time. That desire to achieve the highest grade was a huge motivator. But when “wanting” a first becomes “demanding” a first, ironically getting a first becomes less likely. Remember, “must” suggests that something is a necessity or a need. I ask students to consider what things in this world they must have or do. Typical responses include water, oxygen, sleep, and food. Does performing well in an exam really fit within this list of crucial necessities? No – but when we treat success the same as those necessities we render the situation simply too important to produce our best performance. It’s too much pressure, and therefore anxiety and procrastination are likely reactions.


I want to conduct a brief thought experiment here. Below you will find a list of 10 “bad” situations or occurrences. What I would like you to do is get into the role of a student for a minute and rate each one from 0% to 100% in “badness” where 0% is not bad at all and 100% is the worst thing you can imagine.

  1. You fail an exam
  2. You submit the wrong version of an assignment
  3. You miss a deadline for an assignment
  4. You turn up unprepared for a presentation
  5. You contract a terminal illness
  6. You lose a family member
  7. You are evicted from rented accommodation
  8. You lose your wallet or purse with $100 in it
  9. You stub your toe
  10. The Student Union closes the campus bar!

What we find when we complete this type of activity with athletes, is that performance events (so, the first four in the student example above) get rated at about the 40%-60% mark. Events that have harsher life implications (events 5 to 7) get rated at 90% and above. Lastly, acute and less severe events (8 to 10) get rated 30% and below.

Here is the point. How can a student say that “failing an exam is awful” or “performing poorly is terrible” if they don’t rate any of those performance beliefs anywhere near 100%?

This is about helping students to gain perspective and understand that the language they use to describe situations may be inappropriate for what they are actually experiencing. Telling themselves that “failure is awful” will not help them to achieve their goals or recover from a set-back. Lets take an example from sport. Rory McIlroy, four-time major champion golfer, experienced a complete performance meltdown at a Major in 2011. He very publically choked. His reaction to this was that “shooting a bad score in the last round of a golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people go through.” After his failure, he went to Haiti with Unicef just after the earthquake and saw what real catastrophe looked like. A failed exam is bad, but it is not a catastrophe and is not awful. Students are able to bounce back, we see it time and time again.

In part 3, I will move onto the other two irrational beliefs.

Take away thoughts: In the mean time, take the time to reflect on your own demands. Also, how can you use the badness scale with students at a practical level prior to assessments?

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