Exam resits – getting back on the horse

resit

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.

Emotional reaction

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

  • Mindset

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.

  • Studying

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.

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

failure-sucess

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.

Mindset

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.