Ask a Professor: What Should You Do If You’ve Failed a Test?
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- A failed exam can come as a shock but shouldn't define your entire semester.
- Avoid the temptation to quit a subject or ignore studying because of one bad grade.
- Use the experience of failing an exam as an opportunity to work on your weaknesses.
- Remember to stay calm and ask your professor for advice on how to improve.
I still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach my first year of college when our TA handed back our inorganic chemistry midterms. As a straight-A student in high school, I dreaded the thought of failing an exam.
When I finally worked up the courage to look at my test, I saw I'd earned a 61 — a failing grade — according to my chemistry professor.
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What I did next was a huge mistake: I put the exam away and decided right then I was bad at chemistry. A year later, I'd given up on my natural sciences track and moved over to the social sciences instead. Thanks to hindsight and my experience as a professor, I now know what I should have done differently.
Rather than taking proactive steps, I simply ignored the bad grade. Below, we'll go over how to avoid making some of the common mistakes if you (like me) have failed a test.
Failed an Exam? 5 Essential Steps to Take
Almost every college student receives a failing grade at some point during their program. Whether you forgot to study or simply don't understand the material, failing grades happen. So what can you do if you receive a low test score?
1. Don't Panic
If you've always done well in school — or even if you haven't — a failing grade can come as a shock. College classes raise the bar on expectations, and many first-year students struggle to keep up. In 2019, nearly 1 in 4 first-year students decided not to stay in college for their sophomore year.
This is why the first step to take if you've failed a test is to stay calm. Instead of panicking or falling into a spiral of test anxiety, take a deep breath. Failing grades are part of college, and an F on a test can teach you a lot — but only if you're willing to learn.
2. Carefully Review Your Exam
When I failed my chemistry exam, I barely looked at the test. The big red ink at the top told me everything I needed to know. But that approach meant missing out on a huge opportunity.
Reviewing your test is the best way to identify your strengths and weaknesses.
Reviewing your test is the best way to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Did you miss points for not showing your work? Do you need to bring in more examples in your essays?
It's also possible you'll identify an error in your score. As a professor, I graded thousands of blue book exams. In a handful of cases, I added up the total incorrectly. That said, avoid searching your exam for every chance to pick up an extra point. Many professors will regrade your exam if asked, but they also reserve the right to lower your original grade.
Rather than trying to raise your current exam score, focus on the next test — even if you failed a final exam. In the long term, you'll gain much more by learning from your failing grade than trying to get an extra point or two.
3. Make a Plan
As a professor, I found that one of the most painful moments in class was handing back exams. Some students looked at their grades and then immediately tossed their blue books in the trash. I always wrote comments and feedback on every exam, and those students missed out on valuable information to raise their next test scores.
Not all graders leave comments, but you should still take notes as you review your exam. Once you've scoured the test for information, you can start making a plan for the next one.
Treat the exam like an assignment: Dissect it, analyze it, and draw useful data from it.
A test score offers valuable feedback on your study skills and your preparation for class. Did you spend too much time studying a concept that didn't come up on the exam and not enough time on the material that appeared on the test?
In my history classes, I divided in-class exams into short-answer identification questions and long-form essays. Many students were stronger on one part than another. Understanding your weaknesses can tell you what to do differently next time.
Maybe you need to drill the key terms more or focus on writing a strong thesis statement. Treat the exam like an assignment: Dissect it, analyze it, and draw useful data from it.
4. Go to Office Hours
Plan to attend your professor's office hours as soon as possible after you receive your exam. Before that, though, make sure you carefully review your failed test and bring it with you. I still remember a student who cried in my office hours because she'd received a low grade on an exam — and she hadn't even seen it. A friend picked up the test and texted her the score.
Ask your professor for tips on how to improve for the next test.
Approach office hours strategically. You'll get nowhere by insisting on a higher grade or by complaining that you shouldn't have failed. Instead, focus your attention on preparing for the next exam.
Ask your professor for tips on how to improve for the next test, and see if they can offer any tips regarding review sheets, study guides, and/or study groups. Also, ask if you can email questions while you study for the exam.
Going to office hours can be intimidating, especially if you haven't done it before. But most professors want to help you succeed and are happy to discuss study approaches.
5. Prepare for the Next Exam
A failed exam can feel like a big blow. It can even cause test anxiety for the next exam. But try to stay focused on the ultimate goal: mastering the material and earning your degree.
Instead of wallowing, prepare for the next midterm or final. Implement the new study techniques you learned in office hours or gained by dissecting your previous exam.
Set aside more time to prepare for the exam and attend any review sessions your professor offers. Professors often drop hints about the material that will show up on the test during review sessions.
Focusing on the next exam shifts your attention from an area in which you have no control — the failing grade on your last exam — to an area in which you do have control: your score on the next test. Emphasizing improvement can also help rebuild your confidence.
Recovering Strong After a Failed Test
No one wants to fail an exam in college. But instead of falling into a spiral of self doubt or anger at your professor, learn from the experience. I gave up on chemistry very quickly after one failed test. With more confidence and practice, I could have turned that exam into a learning opportunity.
Don't let a single F define you as a student. In college, as in life, you'll always face setbacks. Learning how to gracefully respond to failures will shape your future more than a poor grade.
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