Medical students' personal experience of high-stakes failure: case studies using interpretative phenomenological analysis

R.S. Patel, C. Tarrant, S. Bonas, R.L. Shaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abstract (provisional):
Background Failing a high-stakes assessment at medical school is a major event for those who go through the experience. Students who fail at medical school may be more likely to struggle in professional practice, therefore helping individuals overcome problems and respond appropriately is important. There is little understanding about what factors influence how individuals experience failure or make sense of the failing experience in remediation. The aim of this study was to investigate the complexity surrounding the failure experience from the student’s perspective using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Methods The accounts of 3 medical students who had failed final re-sit exams, were subjected to in-depth analysis using IPA methodology. IPA was used to analyse each transcript case-by-case allowing the researcher to make sense of the participant’s subjective world. The analysis process allowed the complexity surrounding the failure to be highlighted, alongside a narrative describing how students made sense of the experience. Results The circumstances surrounding students as they approached assessment and experienced failure at finals were a complex interaction between academic problems, personal problems (specifically finance and relationships), strained relationships with friends, family or faculty, and various mental health problems. Each student experienced multi-dimensional issues, each with their own individual combination of problems, but experienced remediation as a one-dimensional intervention with focus only on improving performance in written exams. What these students needed to be included was help with clinical skills, plus social and emotional support. Fear of termination of the their course was a barrier to open communication with staff. Conclusions These students’ experience of failure was complex. The experience of remediation is influenced by the way in which students make sense of failing. Generic remediation programmes may fail to meet the needs of students for whom personal, social and mental health issues are a part of the picture.
Original languageEnglish
Article number86
JournalBMC Medical Education
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2015

Bibliographical note

Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY)


  • underperformance
  • failure
  • experience
  • medical students
  • medical school
  • interpretative phenomenological analysis


Dive into the research topics of 'Medical students' personal experience of high-stakes failure: case studies using interpretative phenomenological analysis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this