Ask a Professor: What Should You Do If You’ve Failed a Test?

Ask a Professor: What Should You Do If You’ve Failed a Test?

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Feature Image: Neustockimages / E+ / Getty Images

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