The “Near” Win in Education

I’m very familiar with the “near” win. Whether it was almost beating M. Bison in Street Fighter 2 after playing for an hour, or the “near” win of coming within seconds of a PR during a race. The “near” win is extremely frustrating as noted by the teeth marks I apparently left in my SNES controllers 20 years ago but also satisfying as you are able to say “Ugh. I can’t believe I just missed it. Let me prepare so next year (or next turn) I can finally beat it.

I think this concept of coming so close to accomplishment and falling short is directly related to the concept of grit. Grit, in simple terms, is deep resilience and motivation through tough circumstances. How does this relate? You need grit if you want to get more than one “near” win because some people would give up after landing in 2nd or 3rd place for the first time.

How does the “near” win relate to higher education or education in general? Grades. Involvement. Sports.

You will earn your grade, I will not give it to you.

When I had the pleasure of teaching a few courses that required reflective essays, no one in my class earned lower than a C. This is not because I had outstanding students or because I was an “easy” grader, this was because I simply didn’t accept the paper if it was less than average. If you handed in a paper that was less than average you earned a “NY” grade meaning “Not Yet.” This meant that your paper was filled probing questions to get you to dig deeper and write more to get to the core of your point. You will keep getting the NY until I am satisfied with your effort. Some students took advantage of this and thanked me for showing the personalized care and attention, others were annoyed that them “trying” the first time wasn’t good enough to get a grade. It was an interesting experiment that I’d like to try again more formally and track to see the long/short-term impact of that grading practice.

We can’t offer you a position but we hope you stay involved.

I’m guilty of putting something like this in a letter informing a student that they didn’t get hired for a position they applied for. Can you guess what typically happens? The student gets angry, disappointed, disengaged and perhaps doesn’t come back to your office for anything else. I’m not arguing for an increase in “alternative” positions because I’ve heard that solution. I’m saying that we need to not only teach students how to accept not being picked BUT we do need to provide something after the grieving period ends. This is a “near” win. You’ve applied. You’ve interviewed. You feel good about it but then you don’t get it. What’s the solution? One idea is to keep all candidates on a mailing list that is categorized by strengths and interests so you can do targeted outreach to get them engaged. (Talk about an easy retention strategy to increase engagement and awareness of opportunities!)


We see “near” wins all the time in sports. Our student athletes, our student club athletes, our athletic students that are engaged in the rec center all have experienced the pain or exhilaration of a “near” win. Nearing that personal record, or almost hitting the game winning shot, or almost beating your friend in racquetball. These students, perhaps more than most, know what a “near” win is. So what do we do about it? Nothing. The most recent example of what needs to be done for these athletes is what Coach Belisle did for his little league team. I’m not saying we have to coddle these students but we do need to support them in ways that ensure their confidence, well-being, and resilience to succeed stays intact. How? The answer isn’t to hand out participation ribbons. We need to teach students how to reflect and how to think critically about their performance, their effort, and their impact. This isn’t easy but it is one of the most powerful and under utilized practices for most people and we do not do a good enough job of instilling this in students at an early age.

Take a critical look at your program, your office or your courses this year and see what “near” wins you can push to wins. You may find it takes less effort than you realized.