Monday, 16 March 2015

I Failed a Midterm... So What?

Exam Fail

Okay, so maybe the title of this post is a little misleading, mainly because it makes it seem like I’m entirely too nonchalant when it comes to the topic of midterms, when I’m not. But after four years of university, where I’ve had my fair share of time mismanagement, poorly-planned all-nighters, XL coffees and countless printer mishaps, I’d like to think that I’ve mastered the whole ‘look at the bigger picture’ perspective on life.  And I can tell you, that outlook will come in handy if you receive a mark on an exam that is less than stellar. 

How was I finally able to adopt this mentality, you ask? Well, I can tell you it didn’t happen overnight; it was, and still is, a long process that began when I first became a bright-eyed (read: eager and annoying) first year student. You know, before that fourth-year apathy set in… which I can’t promise won’t seep into this particular post. Anyway, after years of learning from mistakes, here are some things I’ve realized definitely help when it comes to softening the blow of that horrible mark.

1. Wait until you actually get your exam grade back. 

Many of us have had this experience : you think you’ve failed an exam (O Chem, anyone?), only to realize that you didn’t do so bad after all. That’s right, you actually got a decent mark and  you’re pretty much  on cloud nine for the rest of the day/month/year. So, wait until you get your actual mark back before you start jumping to conclusions. You might be pleasantly surprised (I’m rooting for you, buddy!).

2. Distance yourself from it for a bit… until you can think clearly. 

That’s right. Close that eClass tab immediately. Delete the 16 drafts you’ve made of the same frantic email to your professor, from “WHAT MARK DO I NEED TO GET ON THE FINAL TO PASS THIS CLASS?!?!” to “YOUR CLASS IS RUINING MY LIFE.” Those emails aren’t helping much; they’re only calling your sanity into question. But in all seriousness, there’s a reason professors and TAs usually ask that you refrain from emailing or setting up appointments immediately after receiving marks for exams. Once you’ve had a chance to compose yourself and to calm down a little, that’s when you should visit your prof or TA to have them go over the exam with you. It gives you time to look the exam over with fresh eyes, and see exactly what you did wrong, and why… which leads us to the next point. 

3. Ask yourself why. 

Take some time to figure out why you did so poorly. Was it because you just didn’t study? Spent more time in the Tim Horton’s line than you did in class? Or maybe, is it because you just don’t get the material? Whatever the reason may be, figuring out why you did poorly on an exam is crucial, because it sheds light on what you should do next…

NOTE: If you believe that your grade is an unfair one (i.e. you think that you deserved a higher mark), then consider contacting the Student Ombudservice to learn about the steps that you can take to appeal your grade. 

4. Plan a course of action. 

If you did poorly because you didn’t study enough (or, didn’t have time to study at all for whatever reason), you can more than likely bounce back from this unfortunate setback. You may not get that A+, but it is definitely possible to get a great mark, even after bombing a midterm, given that most classes have several components that make up your overall mark; so chances are, you can compensate for a poor mark in one section with an excellent mark in another. But, that all depends on you and your work ethic. Are you willing to put in the time and effort to do well on your next assessment? Are you willing to adjust your study habits? Are you willing to give up those ‘group study sessions’ (which, if we’re really being honest here, is just two hours of showing each other the funniest YouTube videos you found that week… oh wait, you don’t do that too? Awkward…)?

If you’re just not getting the material, and you’ve decided to stick with the class and persevere (and I fully support this! #underdogsftw), it’s time to buckle down and be proactive. You’re going to need some help, and it’s a-okay to admit that (yes, even if you used to get 90s in highschool without cracking a textbook open…). Find out what resources are available to you, and USE THEM; please make sure that the resources you choose to use are helpful and suitable for you! (i.e. Maybe you’ve noticed that reading the entire textbook from cover to cover just doesn’t seem to work for you. Maybe, you’re better off understanding the material by watching YouTube tutorials- there are GREAT channels out there for specific topics covered in university-level classes- and doing practice problem sets. Try to figure out which method enables you to retain as much relevant material as possible). 

Don’t forget that your prof/TA are great resources too! As you go through the information covered in lectures, mark the areas that you don’t quite understand or are having trouble with, and set up an appointment with your professor and TA. Going with specific questions in mind saves a lot more time, for both you and your professor/TA, than going in and saying, “Tell me everything there is to know about [insert really broad and complex topic].” 

Ain't nobody got time for that
Image courtesy of

Professors and TAs will likely be more than willing to help you, as long as you put in the effort. If you feel like you might need more one-on-one help, finding a tutor might be a good idea (or, maybe even someone you know who has taken the course and can give you pointers about how to study for it). InfoLink can probably help you both of those (sort of) – the Tutor Registry should connect you with tutors who have been trained to help you AND who’ve received at least a B in the course before. The Exam Registry can also be a handy tool for learning what kind of questions you should be planning for ahead of an exam (which makes for great study material).

Another option: 

Sign up for review sessions/help sessions offered by groups like the  Math and Applied Science Centre (MASC), the Centre for Writers (C4W), and the Student Success Centre. Student Support and Disability Services (SSDS) is another great place to check-in with since they can help identify learning disabilities that might be impacting your exam skills. (i.e. they can help identify if a student needs a special environment to write an exam in and can also help determine if a student needs any special supports to improve their learning environment.)

Something that works for me: 

Making a concept map for any broad or large topics covered in lecture that I’m having trouble with. Like I’ve mentioned before, I have to be able to see the ‘bigger picture’ before I can even begin to grasp the details, and concept maps help me do this. It may seem like a pain, but knowing how each topic (and subtopics) relate to the take-home message a professor is most likely trying to get across helps *me* a lot during exams (especially in long-answer questions, as profs tend to ask questions that require you to relate multiple concepts). Not only that, but if you blank during an exam, you’ll at least be able to attempt the questions, since you know all of the big concepts!  

If you feel like you’re trying your best, and you’re still not getting the material, don’t become disheartened. So many students have come across classes that have given them a hard time, so you’re definitely not alone!

5. Sometimes, the best course of action is withdrawal. 

In my honest opinion, a W on your transcript is a thousand times better (and easier to explain) than an F, not to mention that a W doesn’t affect your GPA or academic standing. Sometimes, getting out while you’re ahead is the best thing to do. Again, this requires you to be honest with yourself: can you do better on the final exam (or, any of the remaining assessments), and will this be enough to get the mark that you need? Maybe, you’re taking a full course-load along with many other extra-curricular commitments, and the material covered in that one class just isn’t making sense at all! It’s totally okay to admit you’re in over your head, as long as you do that while you still have the chance…. Deadline to withdraw is April 1st! Before withdrawing though, try to see your academic advisor. They’ll be able to help talk you through your situation and will help you determine if the W is really your best option this time around. Also, you might want to consider the financial repercussions before you withdraw.

NOTE: If you aren’t sure who or where your academic advisor is, check with InfoLink. They’ll point you to the right person.


This one’s self-explanatory. If you have any hopes of doing well in the class, you can’t leave anything to chance from this point forward. Cancel that subscription to Netflix if you have to!

Finally, I ask the most important question: what’s one exam in the grand scheme of things anyway? Don’t fear failure, guys and girls! Use it to your advantage:

Failure Gif - Seth Rogen Quote
Image courtesy of

And with that, I wish you all good luck on your finals! May your prof’s practice exams ACTUALLY mirror the real thing… 

Aala - YouAlberta Blogger

Aala is in her final year of the Neuroscience program [insert other random but completely boring things about her that make your eyes glaze over]. Now, onto the real important stuff: any doctors out there reading this? She's got a serious case of wanderlust-itis, and was wondering if there were any immediate cures? Because it’s got her on Pinterest, pinning images of places she’ll likely only visit in her dreams, when she should be paying close attention as her physiology professor goes over the role of CCK in the digestive system. FOR THE THIRD TIME. Sigh. At any point during the day, you can most definitely find her in the lineup for Tim Horton’s (ANY Tim Horton’s really, she's got quite a radar for it) getting her daily Iced Capp fix. 

1 comment

  1. Well thank god I read this before I sent an embarassing email to my TA


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