1. Don’t panic
It may sound cliche, but whether you think you have failed or know for sure that you have failed, panicking will not help. Don’t do anything rash or make any big decisions until you have the full picture. If you think you have bombed an exam, it can be nerve-wracking to wait until grades are released, but panicking won’t change your answers or the outcome. And if you have failed, panicking will only keep you from making sound decisions and taking appropriate action. Instead, take a deep breath and follow the next few steps.
2. Know whether you need to pass the exam or not
This part you can do before you even take the exam, and it can go a long way to both motivating your study and keeping you level-headed both during and after the exam. Find out if you actually need to pass the exam, or what grade you need on the exam to pass the class. In some classes, the exam will be the only mark you receive, which means that if you pass the exam, you pass the class, and if you fail, well….you get the idea. Knowing this ahead of time can help you prepare and focus your studies.
In other classes, the exam will be a percentage of your overall grade, which means that you can, hypothetically, fail the exam and still pass the class. This doesn’t mean you should deliberately fail your exams, but it may give you peace of mind. If you have attended - and participated in - class and passed all your assignments, a low mark on your final exam won’t mean you have failed the class. In most cases, the instructor will explain in the class syllabus how the exam factors in grading and to what percentage it is weighted. If the grading scheme is unclear, reach out to your professor or the department early in the semester and make sure you understand how grades will be factored.
It is also helpful to know whether the class is required for graduation or your degree and whether you have a minimum grade requirement for the class. Failing an exam in a core subject or degree requirement might have a much more significant impact than bombing a final in an elective.
3. Know your options
Once you know whether you have to pass the exam, figure out your other options:
- Can you take this class pass/fail?
- Will the professor curve the results based on the exam results of the whole class?
- Does the instructor allow retakes?
- Can you complete extra credit?
- What is your university’s policy on appealing exam results?
Knowing what you can do if you fail means that if you do fail, you will know what to do next. Taking a challenging class pass/fail might be an option, but you may have to make that decision before you have taken the final exam. If you wait until you have failed, it may be too late to use that option. If your professor allows retakes on the exam, you will need to know when and how you are allowed to sit the exam a second time. The same goes for extra credit - when will you submit it? How much extra credit will you need?
The key to this step is communication. Talk to your professors and instructors. Read the syllabus ahead of time and ask questions if you don’t understand class or university policy. Raise issues with your grades and assignments early. Not only will you get the clarity you need, you will demonstrate to your instructors that you are invested in your own success. Remember, your professors and university want you to succeed, but they can’t help you if you don’t advocate for yourself.
4. Gain some perspective
As mentioned in the previous step, no one wants you to fail. It is in the best interest of the professors and the university that you graduate and become a successful professional person in your field. Failing an exam will rarely mean that you fail your degree. Instead, a failed exam usually indicates that you still need to master certain aspects of your subject or that you need to reexamine your priorities.
This might mean retaking the exam after studying more or different parts of the material. Or you may need to retake the class so that you can concentrate on parts of the instruction that you missed the first time around. Maybe this subject matter is more challenging, and you need to return to some basics or take another foundational class or module before proceeding.
Failure can also signify that you have ventured into an area of study that is not for you, which is okay. Figuring out the right path for your studies is a big part of the university experience, and failure can guide that self-realization. Failing an exam or a class could indicate that your interests and skills apply more to a different area or subject.
After a failure, take some time to determine why you failed. Then, if you want to try again, figure out what you will need to do to succeed. Sometimes it is important to keep trying, even if you have failed. And other times, it is important to walk away from failure with your head held high. Failure isn’t an indication that you are a bad student or that you are not intelligent. But it can teach you about yourself, and that is, ultimately, the point of higher education.