Failing a test can be absolutely crushing. Failing a test usually evokes a flood of negative thoughts and emotions. You feel worthless and stupid. You can feel isolated and alone. It may feel like you are the only one that failed. Going to university can feel like a big mistake and an enormous waste of time.
Nobody talks about failure.
Failing a test is very common at college and university. If you ask a first year class at university, about 33% will say that they have failed a quiz or a test. On some mid-term exams, in difficult courses, like calculus and chemistry, the failure rate on the first mid-term can be as high as 50%. That’s brutal.
Getting less than 50% is considered a hard fail (i.e., you didn’t pass). But even a soft fail (i.e., you passed but got a terrible grade) can be devastating. If you are hoping to get into any competitive program (e.g., grad school, law school, medicine or dentistry), then even a soft fail can be crushing. Together, the number of students dealing with either a hard fail or a soft fail is extremely large.
Although extraordinarily common, we don’t talk about failure very much at all and we don’t teach students how to deal with failure. Even though we know that the impact of failing a test on a student’s self-worth can be considerable, there are very few studies examining failure rates in college and university students and even fewer programs to help students learn how to deal with failure.
Why failing an exam matters.
Failing one test or even an exam in your first year is, for most students, not going to matter too much in the long term. Most (but not all) competitive programs now focus on academic performance in the past two years of your degree. This means that even if you have poor grades in your first one or two semesters, you can recover and do well in your later years. Still, because some universities look at your performance over all four-years in some programs, you need to inform yourself right from the beginning of your studies.
However, research does show that doing badly on mid-term (i.e., < 60%) exam is associated with a high risk failing the course. One study showed that 95% of the students identified as succeeding on their mid-terms (i.e., >60%) ultimately passed the course. However, this study showed that only half the students (56%) identified as at risk (i.e., < 60% on the mid-term) passed the course. This means that half of the students with grades less than 60% on the mid-term did not pass. Failing the mid-term doesn’t mean you can’t pass the course, but it does mean you need to do something about it right away.
This study also showed the importance of taking the poor grade seriously and getting help right away. Students in the study who were at risk could significantly improve their chances of succeeding if they agreed to participate in a tutoring program. In fact, the rate of success was 20% greater for students in the tutoring program than the success rate for at risk students who decided not to participate in the tutoring program.
What should I do after a setback or failing.
There are a number of things you can do immediately after an academic setback, whether it is a hard fail (i.e., < 50%) or a soft fail (i.e., a mark that was much worse than you expected.
#1: Normalize your experience.
The first step in dealing with a failure is for you to normalize what has just happened. Failure is not uncommon, and it is part of life. Although we don’t talk about it enough, it is important to remember that everyone goes through it. It is so common that a few universities have started hosting an annual “failure conference” in which students and professors talk about their own experiences with failures. The conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, even sells tickets to their annual failure conference, and they always sell out.
#2: Keep your “sorry time” in check.
Failing a test or doing poorly on an exam never feels good. It’s natural to feel down. But it’s very important to limit the time you’ll spend dwelling on what happened.
To help his football players get over a loss, Don Shula, one of the greatest NFL football coaches in history, introduced a simple 24-hour rule. Following a loss, he would give his players and coaching staff 24 hours to feel bad about the defeat. After that, everyone had to refocus their attention on training hard and getting ready for the next game.
#3 Troubleshoot. Once you have had a chance to feel awful, it is time to start working on a plan. The next step is to take a hard and honest look at what happened. Was it a lack of time to prepare? Did you study the wrong material? Was it nerves? Or a lack of interest? Take the Setback Assessment Tool and the Failure Coping Styles Questionnaire to get a better sense of what went wrong and what to do differently.
#4 Talk to your instructor, teacher or teaching assistant. One of the most important things you can do immediately after the exam is to make an appointment to review your results. There are two reasons for this. First, you need to make sure that your exam is graded correctly. You would be surprised how often mistakes are made in grading. Although this might not make a huge difference, every little bit helps. Second, reviewing your exam also lets the instructor or teacher know you are serious. Just say, “I know this exam didn’t go very well. But I would like to do better, and I am working on a plan for how to improve. Part of that plan is to review my exam and see what I did wrong and what I need to do differently. I would be grateful if I could set up an appointment to discuss my exam at your earliest convenience.”
#5 Make a plan. The next step is to make a plan that includes a proper schedule or storyboard as well as the use of effective strategies, such as Cornell notes, flashcards and practice problems. It may also include help from a tutor or another student in the class.
#6 Put a team together. Although you are expected to write your own papers and sit for your own exams, university is not an individual sport but rather a team sport. The university expects and encourages you to get all the help you need to excel, which includes help from other students, tutors, your parents, and to do whatever you need to do your very best.
#7 Keep it in perspective. The last step is to keep all of this in perspective. Failing feels devastating and may feel like you will never recover. Every student that has failed and still gone on to graduate, get good jobs and start exciting careers of their choosing will tell you that you will survive and life will go on. Failing is hard enough. One of the few ways you could actually make it worse is to give your self a hard time about it.
How do you cope with failure?
Researchers at the University of Ottawa have identified four different coping styles when it comes to failure. Two of these styles are adaptive. These include socially adaptive coping (e.g., asking for help) and task adaptive coping (e.g., studying more). And two are maladaptive. These are social-avoidance behaviours (e.g., avoiding others) and task-avoidance behaviours (e.g., procrastinating). Take the test to learn what type of adaptive and maladaptive coping styles you use. Then complete the Setback Assessment Quiz to help you identify what you might do differently.
Top 8 reasons for academic setbacks and failure:
Here are the top seven reasons for academic setbacks and failure.
1. Poor time management and preparation. Poor preparation can include both poor time management (i.e., not starting soon, putting friends, extracurriculars and even work ahead of studying) and not putting in enough time (i.e., setting aside enough hours to practice). If this is your main reason for failure, you might try story boarding your week.
2. Ineffective study skills. Too many students rely on re-reading their notes or the next book, often just a day or two or even the night before, rather than relying on strategies that have been shown to be effective such as active recall (i.e., flash cards or practice problems) and Cornell note-taking.
3. Procrastination. Preparing for tests and exams is difficult and tedious . It is easy to postpone anything that is hard or boring for an activity that is fun. If this is your main reason for failure, you might try putting all of the fun stuff at the end of the day.
4. Lack of perseverance. Every student will start to run out of gas at some point. You have done enough and want to give up. If this is your main reason for failure, you might try using micro-breaks to give yourself a boost to get a bit more done before you stop for the day.
5. Distractions. Distractions can set you back in two ways, first because of the lost time doing something else and second because of the time it takes to get focused back on what you need to be doing. If this is your main reason for failure, you might try finding a quieter place to study (e.g., the library), or putting your phone in a show box at the back of your closet for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. Almost 20% of university students, say that excessive time on the internet or on video games contributed to poor grades.
6. Studying the wrong material. Sometimes it is very hard to know what to study and you ended up studying the wrong things. If this is your main reason for failure, you might try spending part of your study time with other students and make sure you ask the instructor or prof what to focus on for the exam. If the prof has talked about it in the class, chances are it is going to be on the exam.
7. Mental health. Mental health difficulties, such as high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety are among the top reasons for underperforming on tests and assignments. If this is your main reason for failure, it is time for you to talk to a mental health professional.
8. Lack of interest. Sometimes students do badly because they are studying something that doesn’t align with their interests. If you have ruled out all of the other reasons and you are still having difficulty then it is time to consider the possibility that you are studying the wrong thing. If this is your main reason for failure, it may be time for you to talk to an academic counsellor or a career counsellor about different course and program options.
Cornell, D. G., Krosnick, J. A., & Chang, L. (2006). Student Reactions to Being Wrongly Informed of Failing a High-Stakes Test: The Case of the Minnesota Basic Standards Test. Educational Policy, 20(5), 718–751. https://doi-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.1177/0895904805284123M.
Willems, J., Coertjens, L., Tambuyzer, B. et al. Identifying science students at risk in the first year of higher education: the incremental value of non-cognitive variables in predicting early academic achievement. Eur J Psychol Educ 34, 847–872 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-018-0399-4
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