The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Quantifying fear of failure in STEM: modifying and evaluating the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory (PFAI) for use with STEM undergraduates

Partners' Institution
University of Perugia
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
International Journal of STEM Education
Thematic Area
Students’ Difficulties
The ability to navigate obstacles and embrace an iterative process in response to failure is considered a hallmark of scientific disposition. The ways in which this ability can be nurtured in STEM students have guided research efforts aimed at “intrapersonal elements”, which are a subset of one’s individual competences not related to one’s intelligence or knowledge (mindsets, beliefs, attitudes, etc.). One of these elements, the “Fear of Failure” (FF), is predicted to influence students’ engagement with challenges and responses to failure. Quantitative measure for this element is found in literature through the use of the “Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory” (PFAI), but its use was not investigated and validated on undergraduate STEM students, which is what this study is focused on. The analysis is a 7-step process encompassing:
1) A Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA) to test whether the current model’s factors are appropriate for measuring STEM undergraduates’ FF,
2) An Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) to consider alternative factors and evaluate if they offer a better fit for the sample,
3-5) Additional CFAs in several other samples to confirm the validity of the new factor structure,
6) An investigation whether the new factor structure is a good fit for science PEERs (Persons Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race),
7) A series of cognitive interviews among students to assess the validity of the final revised measure.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
FF has been defined in literature as a “temporary cognitive and emotional reaction towards environmental stimuli that are apprehended as threats in achievement contexts”. An achievement context is a situation in which some tasks which requires a certain competence must be performed, and they will be evaluated against some standards or expectations. In this situation, having a high FF leads to challenge avoidance, lower motivation, and self-impeding behaviors (making excuses, reduced efforts, etc.). Most importantly, FF may predict whether or not students ultimately choose a STEM major or to remain in one. The current method to quantify FF (the PFAI) was validated for K-12 students, sport athletes, and broadly for college students. However, the methods was not validated for STEM undergraduates, which are exposed to an achievement context where failure is a common accepted part of the learning process and professional activity.
The original PFAI model is composed of 25 items divided in 5 dimensions. The items are grouped according to statistical relationships that correspond to psychological constructs of FF (measuring different aspects of the components that together describe the FF): Fear of Shame or Embarrassment (FSE), Fear of Devaluing one’s Self-Estimate (FDSE), Fear of having an Uncertain Future (FUF), Fear of Important Others Losing Interest (FIOLI), and Fear of Upsetting Important Others (FUIO).
The first step of the analysis clarifies if the PFAI is valid for STEM undergraduates. The step is important because the indiscriminate usage of the PFAI could lead to faulty conclusions about FF levels and limit the efficacy of interventions that aim to reduce FF in that context. The confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) carried out serves to investigate if the data collected fit the current factor structure (25 items, 5 dimensions), and if a change of wording specific to the STEM context improves the model fit. Data collected comes from 235 undergraduate students enrolled in a STEM course. They are administered the original 25-items version of the PFAI or a revised version specifically worded for STEM, rating every item on a scale of 1 to 5. They produced various models -each one more refined than the previous by dropping the irrelevant items and substituting the general items with the STEM-specific ones- but even the best one is a mediocre fitting for the data (model fit is carried out through multiple statistical criterions which are all detailed in the paper). This implies that the underlying structure of the PFAI is inappropriate to assess FF in undergraduate STEM students.
The second step is an exploratory factor analysis (EFA), which suggests new models that best fit the data. Specifically, they assumed that an EFA with STEM-specific items would yield a well-fitting model of the PFAI by allowing removal or reorganization of some of the items of the original model. Data for this EFA is acquired from 1800 undergraduate STEM students, all which completed the original 25 items of the PFAI modified to be STEM-specific. The results are that one of the model’s factors is dropped (FDSE), and the items are reduced from 25 to 15 and reorganized among the factors.
The steps 3 to 5 concern a series of CFAs which use firstly the sample of students of step 2, then a new sample of 433 students, and lastly the original sample of 235 from step 1. In all three cases, fit statistics for the new model are excellent.
Participants for the analysis of the step 6 are drawn from all the dataset acquired (1309 undergraduates). The data is then coded to classify each student as either a “PEER” or “not a PEER”. In total 280 PEER students are identified. A CFA for the 4-factors 15-items model produce all fit statistics within ranges for a “good” fitting.
The final step 7 is a series of cognitive interviews to assess the face validity of all 25 items of the original model. This kind of interviews are a great way to directly ask the participants about their interpretation of survey items. During these interviews students are also asked if there are any suggestions for improving the question and if they have any other thoughts. Interviews are carried out through Zoom meetings of approximately 20 minutes each. Students report support for the removal of the items dropped in step 2, motivated by the unclear wording of the phrase.
One of the results of the new model that needs to be discussed further is that one of the dimensions (Fear of Damaging Self-Esteem, FDSE) is not present. This could mean that, within the STEM academic context, undergraduates are not worried about it (not well supported in literature) or that the current PFAI items for this dimension do not accurately describe threats to self-esteem (thus requiring more studies behind). The rest of the differences between the original PFAI model and the new revised one can be summarized as follows:
- Internally driven causes of failure (FSE) is reported in the highest amount in both models.
- FUF becomes the second-highest driver of FF in the new model, whereas in the original was the lowest-impact factor. In particular it seems that a majority of students consider past failures on tests or other achievement measures as potential damage to their future admission to graduate school or other aspirations (thus likely leading to increased FUF). This effect is particularly evident for PEER students, which must also cope with additional pressure from families and communities as a result from being a minority.
- Considering failures in the STEM context increased FUIO and decreased FIOLI. This may be connected to the parent figure being sources of both emotional support and pressure. If STEM students experience increased parental pressure to succeed, they might expect struggle and failures to yield disappointment, but not necessarily a decrease in interest. FUIO is reported at higher levels by PEERs suggesting that they may feel particularly pressure of representing their entire family or identity group.
Point of Strength
The modified PFAI could be used for interventions that target FF as a mean of improving student success. Specifically, it could be used as a pre- and post-survey analysis tool to assess the intervention efficacy.
fear of failure, assessment, measure validation, undergraduate STEM education, academic failure, academic challenge
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