Failing an exam is not something people plan for but it happens. In fact, I have blogged about it many times because at some point almost all students will have to deal with it. The overriding message is that you should learn from your mistakes and move forward. There are two parts to this, firstly learn from your mistakes, after all you don’t want to make the same ones again, secondly pick yourself up and put together a plan that will take you towards your goal of passing.
Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success. C. S. Lewis
In the exam world after failure comes the resit, another exam on the same subject sat at some point in the future. But what are the stages in between, how best should you study for an exam that you have already sat and might have only narrowly failed.
Imagine the email has arrived and you have failed, as with other challenging situations there are any number of different emotions you might experience. These will depend to some extent on your judgement as to how well the exam itself went. If you didn’t make any huge mistakes, were not fazed by many of the questions and completed them all, you were in with a chance. As a result, you might be shocked, angry, disappointed, frustrated and then you will begin to think about the implications, sitting the exam again, how much time it will take, the costs, having to tell people etc. If on the other hand you thought the exam had gone badly, the result simply confirms you were right. That said the email has taken away that small hope you might have been wrong or in some way fluked it, after all exams have gone badly before and you passed them, so why not again.
Either way, eventually you will end up in the same situation and need the best approach to sit the exam again.
The best approach
A mindset is little more than a series of assumptions and beliefs that lead to an opinion. What’s important here is to recognise that they are only assumptions. Carol Dwecks work around Fixed and Growth mindsets provide us with evidence as to the importance of having the right mindset and how best to think about it. Dweck argues that students who believe their abilities are carved in stone, intelligence fixed and failure not just a setback but proof of your ability, will find it very difficult to move forward. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe they can improve, that intelligence is not fixed, (brain plasticity) and that failure is something to learn from will be in a far better position to learn from their mistakes and try again.
The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. John C. Maxwell
Failing an exam is a fact, why you failed and what caused that are often assumptions. The secret here is to revisit your assumptions, what you think they mean and change the negative mindset to a positive one. It is very easy to think you are fooling yourself, this is not about putting a positive spin on a set of poor results, if you didn’t do enough work telling yourself it will be better next time will achieve little. The positive mindset here is to recognise that working harder will give you a better chance of passing which of course it will.
Another reframe is to take the advice of the famous behaviourist B.F Skinner, a failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.
- Learning from your mistakes
Rather than making emotional assumptions as to why you failed far better to spend that energy figuring out what exactly caused the failure. Was it for example lack of work, be honest, was there one area or topic that you simply had no idea what to do, did you run out of time?
Examiners reports and where possible script reviews can be very helpful. One word of caution, script reviews are not remarking exercises. They are there to provide personal feedback on your exam performance. Also, in professional examinations they can be expensive, are not always returned promptly and can sometimes offer little more than what is said in the examiner’s report.
If a script review is not available you could sit the exam again but this time in the comfort of your own home. The purpose here is to provide some insight as to what went wrong, it’s better if you can get your answer marked by a third party, this doesn’t have to be an expert e.g. teacher but it will help. Don’t worry that you will know the answers, think about this in the same way that the police reconstruct a crime, its to give you insight. Not knowing what you did wrong makes it very difficult to do something differently next time.
Firstly, remember you have done this all before, you have a base knowledge of this subject, you’re not starting from scratch. This means you will already have materials, revision notes and a bank of past questions. If you don’t then the good news is you now know exactly what to do!
Past papers – analyse what came up in your exam and add the findings to your existing analysis of past papers. With objective tests or where getting past papers is not possible try and think was there anything different in terms of style, complexity etc.
Revision notes – Although you will have an existing set of notes, it’s a good idea to start with a clean sheet of paper and rewrite them. By all means use your existing notes as a template or guide but re-reading your old revision notes is not particularly effective. You might also want to consider an alternative note taking style for example mind maps.
New question bank – as with revision notes you will also have a book of past questions, get a clean copy e.g. one with no workings or writing in the margin. This is a mindset trick; a clean copy will make each question feel new. Also consider buying or borrowing a completely different set of questions.
Timetable – having a timetable was important last time, its essential for a resit because you are more likely to have limited time available so need to maximise what you do have.
All that remains is for me to wish you the best of luck with the resit and take note of what Zig Ziglar said – failure is an event, not a person.