What to Do When You Fail a Test

Once, when I was a college instructor, a student came to me and asked me what he should do when he fails a test.  In other words, is there anything he can do to use that experience to propel him to better performance in the future?  I thought about the question, and several not-so-helpful responses came to mind.  On the next test, if he thinks he’s going to fail, he could:

  • Fold up the exam and run out of the classroom screaming, “I’ve got the secret document!”
  • Take his Nintendo 3DS to class and do something he enjoys.
  • Find creative ways, on every question, to refuse to answer the question. For instance, “I plead the 5th Amendment,” or “I cannot answer this question, because it conflicts with my religious convictions.”
  • Eat the exam.
  • Arrange a group to picket the exam as unfair to average students.
  • Go to the test wearing a black cloak. Then after a half hour, put on a white mask and yell out, “I’m here, the Phantom of the Opera!” and then walk out.
  • If the test is math related or has a math section, then when you don’t know the answer, make up the longest “proofs” and equations that you can possibly dream up.  Get imaginary numbers, negative numbers, pi and exponents involved in it.
  • If the test is a written exam, relate every item, no matter how ridiculous, to your own life.  For instance, a question about Edison’s discovery of the light bulb could lead to all the ways that you used a light bulb in the past week.
  • Take a large, ugly idol with you into the testing room and place it next to you.  Pray to it throughout the test and see who gives you odd looks.

After I came back down to Earth, I realized that I had to offer my student some serious suggestions. Which I did.  I offer those same suggestions to you:

1) Talk to your instructor after you find out your grade for the test. Your first step is to see what you can do to contain the damage done with this test.  Find out if there ‘s an assignment that you can do that will help bring your grade back up a bit, after the hit that the failed exam has done.

2) Also, find out why you missed the questions that you did. Sometimes, by just hearing the instructor clarify something, you’ll be better equipped to handle it, if a similar question pops up in the future.

3) Some instructors let you keep your exam paper, some don’t. If yours does, you need to use it to create a study guide and / or flash cards for future study.  Many times, future exams will build on what you’ve already been tested on, so you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself asked the same or similar questions in the future.  This is especially true when midterm or final exams approach.  Use your wrong answers to help you avoid missing that question again in the future.

4) As you study your failed exam, notice the reasons why you failed. In particular, pay attention to  whether you missed several of the same type of question.  Let’s take an example.  Maybe you missed several multiple-choice questions, but did fine on the short answer questions, pertaining to the same topic.  If so, it might mean that you’re not good at answering multiple choice questions.  This would show you that in the future, you need to study, not just the course material, but strategies for doing better on multiple choice tests.

5) Take a break. Failing can be a devastating setback.  So – take the weekend off then re-group.  Nursing Entrance Exam, College entrance exams and Armed Services Entrance Exams like the AFQT allow up to 3 chances to take the exam.  Most certification exams allow re-takes as well.  So all is not lost -  make sure you have it together for next time though!  Before you tackle your re-test,  see some of our Tips for Writing a Test.

Failing a test is no laughing matter.  It happens, but when it does, use it to your advantage. There’s no excuse for missing the same thing more than once.   Here is some great advice on students failing the bar exam which is good advice for failing any exam.



About the Author

Brian has a BA in Economics, and an MA in Psychology. He lives in British Columbia, Canada. He has traveled widely and has written extensively on education, testing and tests.

Comments (7)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Great study guide for test prep help This guide is helpful for any student.

  2. Fred Flinstone says:

    take it as a challenge. take a break, access what went wrong and try again. when i failed i couldn’t get myself to take the test again for a while. when i did i aced it.

  3. Akindele says:

    I failed a test. still trying to get the nerves to take it again. nice article

  4. Bright Student says:

    you will never get over the failure until you get it right. so replan and try again.

  5. Adelle says:

    Failing is a total bummer – I agree you shouldn’t hide your head int he sand, BUT it can be pretty hard to take, so you might want to take a break for a few days or a long weekend before getting back to it

  6. Sandra says:

    Failing is a total bummer – I don’t know if it is worse than just barely passing – Sometimes i get a really poor mark but still pass but drags my average down :(

    • Brian says:

      It kind of depends – i have failed mid-terms or gotten poor marks – it was survivable – it just meant I really had to bust my butt for the finals.

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