Reader Questions: What do I do if I failed an exam?

… I thought I was ready for this exam but I blanked out. I failed! I’ve never failed an exam before! What do I do? What if I get an F for the course? None of my friends seem to have as much trouble with this class. I feel so stupid!

You’re not stupid. Most students fail an exam at some point in academic careers, and that first below 50% grade is always hard to take. You’re not even unique in your failure. Your gut reaction may be “oh god, I’m such a failure”, or “f*** you professor! I’ve studied so hard for this exam, how dare you fail me”, or “the universe is out to get me”, or “what? what? I FAILED? How could I fail? I was the smartest person at my high school!”. Whether it’s listless acceptance, indignation, or a feeling of incompetence, get over them. Yes, it’s harder said than done. Take that failed midterm, bury it in the bottom of your binder or filing folder, and don’t look at it for a week. If you’ve calmed down by then, look at it. If not, wait another week.

You know that Robert Frost poem? The Road not Taken?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could

You are the traveler, except you’re not looking the roads often taken and not taken. Instead, one road is success and the other failure. What road you end up on – how successful you are from this point onward – depends solely on you. So how can you ensure that you are on the path to success?

1. Recognize that YOU and you alone was responsible for that failed midterm. It’s no one else’s fault. Take responsibility for your own actions (or perhaps inactions).

2. Also recognize that this exam is a reflection of how you’re doing in the course. It is NOT a judgement of your worth or competence as a person. .

3. Resist falling into the “I’m such a failure” hole. You failed an exam, but you are not a failure as a person.

4. Promise yourself that you will do better. Promise yourself to take action and responsibility for your own learning. Promise yourself that you will find better study strategies and overcome any reservations or issues you have with this class.

Aside from taking on new attitudes, what are some concrete actions you could take now? 

1. Perform an exam post-mortem. Cal Newport, one of my favourite study bloggers, has an excellent article on it already. Figure out what was working, what wasn’t, and find solutions for things that weren’t working. Come up with a plan of attack. List how you will study, what might hold you back, what outcomes you expect (e.g. final grade, amount of content learned), and how you can gauge the efficacy of your own studying (in fact, this is very close to the Research Approach to Learning).

2. Visit your professor or TA. No, you are not to mark grub. In fact, unless you still don’t understand a question on the exam, you are not to talk about any specific question with your prof or TA. You are not to whine about your mark, how the exam was marked, and why you think someone else’s test was marked so much easier than yours. What you will do is show them the results of your post-mortem and your study plan. Ask them for advice. For example, do they know of any more study techniques you could try? When they were a student, what were some things that worked well for them?

3. If your issue is related to text anxiety, I can definitely sympathize. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight. The best cure to test anxiety is confidence in your own abilities. And that confidence takes time to build. There are some good tips on the internet, but it really comes down to believing in yourself. This is extraordinarily hard after a failed exam, but fake it ’til you make it, and it gets better.

4. If your issue is related to not internalizing enough content or not being able to apply what you learned during the exam, try some new study strategies! Force yourself to re-organize data (e.g. tables and charts), summarize it (cheat sheets), or teach it to someone (real or imaginary). Pretend you’re the professor and come up with questions that you think would really challenge a student’s understanding of the topic. If possible, apply what you’re learning to real world situations.

Fall down seven times, stand up eight. – Chinese Proverb

Yes, you failed an exam. But climb back up. It is not the end of the world. If your’e failing an exam in first year, take it as a wake-up call and use it as motivation to never fail an exam again. If this is a midterm (especially THE first midterm), all the better. The exam is probably worth so little you could still do really well in the course despite failing it.

You’ve made it to university and you have what it takes to excel. It takes time to adjust and a failed midterm is simply a sign of that. Don’t let it hold you back. Learn for your mistakes, move on to bigger and better things, and your grades on your future exams will reflect your abilities as a better learner and student.


2 thoughts on “Reader Questions: What do I do if I failed an exam?

  1. Pingback: Exam Prep Toolkit – A Resource for First Year Students

  2. Pingback: End of Term Reminders – A Resource for First Year Students

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