What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset


Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.


The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

“You never fail until you stop trying.” – Toms story

The young Tom - inspiring us even then

The young Tom – inspiring us even then

I am not sure when I first met Tom but it was certainly early on in his studies. Tom was not your typical accountancy student, he was slightly older and perhaps more reflective, the two points may be related. Students studying for professional accountancy exams are probably around 25 and focused very much on looking forward, not back.

Tom started his exam journey in November 2009, his first 2 papers went well and he passed them first time. You need to pass 10 exams broken down over three levels if you want to become a member of the Chartered Institute of management accountants (CIMA).  Boosted by this Tom decided to sit the next 4 papers all at once, something he now thinks was a mistake, he passed just the one. By the end of 2011 however he had passed the other 3. That was 6 papers and two levels complete, Tom was back on track.

“Even though the ship may go down, the journey goes on.” – Margaret Mead

2012 was not a great year for Tom on a personal level which almost certainly had an impact on his performance in the exam room. As a result the whole of that year went by with only one exam success. Between 2012 and 2013 Tom sat one of the remaining papers three times and the other one six times, to quote Tom, that’s six, count them 1…..2….3…..4…..5…..6….. He finally passed that paper in November 2013.

It’s probably worth pausing at this point, how would you feel if you sat an exam twice and failed, let alone 6 times. At this stage your biggest enemy is your own mental attitude. You begin to question your ability, your intelligence and even your choice of career. On top of this is the boredom and stress of having to study the same exam over and over again, trying to do something different, fearing if you don’t you will get the same result. And of course as many of you will know when you are studying your life is on hold, making decisions about work, family/friends is difficult as you need to put your studies first.

In fact Tom did consider giving up, but there were two reasons he didn’t. One the support of his teacher, Maryla who remained positive throughout whilst working with Tom on what he needed to do to improve, and two Toms stubborn attitude, his determination and desire to get something good from all the hard work he had put in so far. To quote Tom, “all I kept thinking was I have lost so much because of this bloody course I have to get something positive from it.” When Tom finally passed that paper he felt excited, and as if he had slain a personal demon.

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William Ward

With only one paper to go Tom was still to face a number of challenges, and it was far from plain sailing.  Knowing a large amount of detail was essential for the earlier papers, now it was all about the big picture, prioritisation and time management.

He was told that gaining the qualification would open doors … So he imagined an open door, on the other side were green fields, money, cars, holidays, being the boss. This focus really helped motivate him to see it through. He passed his last exam on the 29th of May 2015.

It had taken Tom 6 years, in which he had sat in the exam room approximately 22 times. This is not the story of someone who always knew he would pass, destined for success nor of a naturally gifted student who simply needed the right motivation to bring out his talent. This is about what you can achieve if you are willing to make sacrifices, give everything you have and learn from failure.

Congratulations Tom you deserve your success.


Reflection/Goals/Planning……Inspiration and bravery

2013_time100_yousafzaiIt’s nearly the start of a New Year 2014, traditionally a time for both reflection, taking stock of what went well/not so well and looking forward to what the future might hold. On the whole this is a healthy process, looking back gives you chance to put things into perspective and hopefully learn a few lessons, whilst looking forward gets you thinking about what you might like to happen and set goals to make those events more likely.

Looking back on 2013, one event that stood out for me was the nomination of Malala Yousufzai for the Nobel peace prize in November 2013*. It is not the nomination that is important but the fact it provided a reason to revisit the incredible story of one little girls determination to have an education, something that many of us are fortunate enough to be given for free or at least freeish!

Reflection – The story in brief

By 1997, the year in which Malala was born her father Ziauddin Yousufzai had been running a private girls school for several years in the Swat

A classroom in Swat valley

A classroom in Swat valley

district of Pakistan. This was before the Taliban took over. At the end of 2008 the local Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, issued a warning, all female education had to cease within a month, or schools would suffer consequences. Malala was 11 and supported by her father started an anonymous blog for the BBC Diary of a Pakistan school girl.”  The blog stopped after only 10 weeks as Malala had to leave Swat. Although clearly influenced and inspired by her father Malala had a voice of her own and one that was now being heard outside Pakistan, she was passionate about education, especially for women. A documentary by the New York Times bought the story to a wider audience.

 All I want is an education, and I am afraid of no one. 

But on the 9th of October 2012 when Malala was just 15 two men boarded her school bus and asked “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all” The other girls looked at Malala, innocently identifying her; she was shot in the head and neck and left for dead. She was initially flown to a military hospital in Peshawar and then onto the Birmingham Queen Elizabeth hospital in the UK where she had further operations and continued her recovery.

They cannot stop me. I will get my education, if it is in (the) home, school or any place. 

On 12 July, nine months after the shooting, came a major milestone. Malala stood up at the UN headquarters in New York and addressed a specially convened youth assembly. It was her 16th birthday and her speech was broadcast around the world.

Goals and Planning

Malala wanted to be a Doctor, but wanting to be a Doctor is not an effective goal, it’s a wish or desire, it was outside her control. What was within her control was to work hard, motivate herself and fight for the education she deserved.

Malala wanted to be a Doctor but events changed all that, a bullet intended to kill her sent her down a different path. Now she wants to be a politician, not a goal but a wish, driven perhaps by a deep routed desire to help people less fortunate than herself. Yet those same goals of hard work, motivation and learning will equally help turn this wish into a reality.

Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality.

And so to 2014

When thinking back on 2013, learn from your mistakes, maybe the exams (life in general) didn’t go as well as you might have hoped. But don’t Happy New Yearask why, ask what have I learned and so need to do differently in 2014. Remember when setting those goals make sure they are within your control and take inspiration from the story of a brave little girl who worked hard, motivated herself and most of all believed in the importance of education.

  Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world. 


Malala is now working hard for her GCSE’s incidentally at the same school as my daughter.

Well worth watching – BBC – Shot for going to school.

And the *Nobel Peace Prize 2013 was awarded to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.

What’s the point of exams – what do they prove?

With many students in the middle of exams right now, working long hours, making huge personal sacrifices and putting themselves under considerable pressure, perhaps we should stop, take a moment to reflect and ask ……….what’s the point of exams?

Why are you doing this, what will it prove when you do pass, what will passing give you that you don’t have now?



It’s not about knowledge

If you pass an exam, you have proved that you knew the answers to questions set by the examiner at a particular point in time. To be precise you have only really proved you knew enough answers to get a pass mark, in some instances this might be less than half! But you have not proved that you understand everything about the subject or that you could work unsupervised in practice, knowing what to do is not quite the same as doing it.

This is not to say that examinations are easy, they are not or to underestimate their importance, it is just to be a little clearer on what exam success means.

Higher level skills

By passing an exam you are demonstrating many other skills, for example;

Motivation – You have proved that when you set your mind to something you can achieve it.

Concentration – For some people, concentration comes easily for others it might involve removing all distractions by locking themselves in a room. Whatever method you used, you have learned how to cut out distractions and focus on the task in hand.

Prioritisation and Time management – Undoubtedly you have had too much to learn and too little time to learn it. But if you pass the exam you have proved that you got the balance between an endless, or at least what appeared endless set of demands and the overall objective just right.

But most of all exams give you….

A great sense of achievement – You set yourself a target and achieved it.  It is a statement to others that you worked hard and have succeeded. It will remain a tangible and permanent reminder of success that can never be taken away.

Self confidence – It will build self esteem and help you develop a type of confidence that only comes from being successful in a chosen field. Others will congratulate you and as a result, treat you differently.

Choices – it will open doors to opportunities that simply would not have been possible without the piece of paper that says “Congratulations, you have passed”. Exam success will give you choices, it will change how others look at you but perhaps more importantly it will change how you feel about yourself…

So if you have been working hard keep at it, you may not be proving you are the greatest mathematician in the world, but if all goes to plan the end result will make up for all the pain you are going through right now, honest!

But just in case…..everything doesn’t work out check out these Famous A-level flunkers

It’s a Wonderful Life – lifelong learning

In 1946 Frank Kapra made what is arguably the best Christmas film of all time, it’s a Wonderful Life. It tells the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who on Christmas Eve gets drunk after being told that there is a warrant out for his arrest for bank fraud.  In a moment of despair he threatens to throw himself into an icy cold river, believing that this will solve all his problems. He is interrupted by Clarence, his guardian angel (second class) who appears and jumps into the water before him. George is forced to rescue Clarence but does not believe that he is his guardian angel and wishes that he had never been born.

And so the scene is set for Clarence to show George that the world would be a very different place had he not been born. Had he not saved his brother from drowning, stopped Mr Gower (the local pharmacist) giving out a lethal prescription and put his dream of travelling the world on hold to run the local bank (Savings and loan).

George was a man with ambition and drive, he constantly put others before himself, in every way a good man. But as can often happen he found himself in situations that he had not expected, arguably did not deserve, that at the time seemed impossible to solve.

Lifelong learning

We often think that studying is something that you do when you are young and then when you have learned everything by the age of say 25/30, you sit back and relax!  Of course this is not true, learning is a lifelong pursuit. It may not always have an exam at the end, but there are lessons to learn and successes and failures to deal with in equal measure. A Wonderful Life follows the ups and downs of George Bailey and in one way is sad because he never does fulfil his ambition to travel. But he learns so many other things along the way, perhaps most importantly that some of the smaller things you do have a huge impact on others and that when faced with apparent failure or disappointment there is always a solution, and it’s not jumping off a bridge…

So perhaps you didn’t get the exam results you wanted or didn’t get a place at university but this is only a moment in time. It is not the end of the journey; it’s just a different beginning.

Steve Jobs tells a great story about “Joining the dots” how you can only join the dots backwards not forwards. Had he not dropped out of Reed College and wondered into a calligraphy class one day then in Steve’s words “the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

So wherever you are in your lifelong learning class, have a very Merry Christmas.

A lesson for today’s bankers

When faced with the bank collapsing George Bailey put in his own money to save it. A modern day lesson for some of today’s greedy bankers perhaps. Sir Fred Goodwin, please note….

Exam results – what to do if you fail!

August is an interesting month, for some it is the time to take a well earned holiday and so de-stress for others it is the month in which the exam results drop through the letter box or inbox and so a time to get stressed.

I have taken the easier of these two options and so have been on holiday, which for me is always a chance to read a couple of books. One of them was called Talent is overrated by Geof Colvin, senior editor for Fortune magazine. In the book Geof puts forward some interesting arguments as to the role talent plays in the success of people who by many would be considered exceptional, even gifted. He argues not so much that innate talent does not exist, more that successful people, those at the top of their respective tree, Tiger Woods (okay not personally – but he is still a great golfer) Warren Buffet, Bill Gates for example have other qualities, they worked hard, and practised a lot…..

Greatness does not come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades. The key is how you practice, how you analyse the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes.

What has this got to do with exam failure?

If you looked around your class and picked the best, brightest, most talented students, I bet they passed their exams. And the reason you failed was because you are not good enough, you are not talented!

Well here is the bad news, what Geof Colvin and in fairness many others have found is that it is often not down to talent, it is down to hard work and practice, and we are all capable of that. If you believe that your poor exam results were because of your lack of innate abilitiy then you are wrong. You are in fact creating what is called a fixed mindset, you begin to believe that you can’t affect your performance and so don’t try. What’s more it’s not all that good to believe you are naturally talented. Research has proven that if you believe that you do well because you are talented, when faced with failure you are more likely to give up. If you believe that you did well because of hard work and then you fail, you carry on but just work harder next time.

So what should you do?

Geof goes on to say that it is not just practice that matters but how you practice, you need to practice deliberately. He calls it deliberate practice and it should;

  • Be designed to improve performance
  • Be repeated a lot
  • Enable you to get feedback continuously
  • Be highly demanding mentally
  • Not be much fun

But what satisfies the above criteria…….. yes practicing using past exam questions. So if you were not successful in your exams, find out when you can re-sit then;

1. Take a deep breath, get out your notes from last time and draw a mind map or review the one you did for revision, sometimes it’s best to make a fresh start. This will remind you of what you have to cover and get you thinking about the subject again.

2.  Analyse the past exam questions (including the last exam) and find out what is examined the most then identify the areas you need to improve.

3. Start to practice these past questions using the answers for feedback, and no it may not be much fun but then you now that.

Failure – the only way to learn

Here is a great video by a guy called Derek Sivers, Derek is a professional musician and founder of a company called CD baby in the US. He makes an argument as to why we need failure because it is a major factor in how we learn and grow.

Final thought

I know at the moment that failing an exam can feel like the biggest disappointment in the world and that it may seem that your career is over before it really got started. But it is what you do next that really matters

As Michael Jordon once said “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying”

Congratulations on failing from one failure to another…