This Was Only a Test

Bouncing Back After a Bad Exam

When students don’t do as well as we would wish on exams, we may assume it’s because they didn’t study enough, but there are a variety of reasons they might struggle. Pinpointing the issue(s) can help us make adjustments to give students the best possible chance at success. Here are some common problems that can result in lower than expected exam performance:

  • Ineffective study strategies. Sometimes students spend hours studying, but they use ineffective methods or don’t focus on developing the right knowledge and skills. We can help by sharing information with them about the kinds of study strategies that research shows are more effective than cramming or simply rereading.
  • Fluency illusions. When students hear an expert (like you) explain concepts clearly and make connections easily, they can get the impression they understand the material better than they do. We can help reveal these fluency illusions by asking them to explain concepts, make connections, and apply what they learn, so they can get a clearer sense of whether they are really learning it.
  • Course alignment issues. If the main components of a course are not well-aligned, our exams might be testing something other than we mean to be testing, so we won’t get an accurate sense of how much students have learned. For example, we might unintentionally measure the speed with which they can solve problems rather than their knowledge and reasoning, or we might be testing whether they can recall a detail in the purple box on page 247 of the textbook rather than their understanding of an important concept.
  • Not enough practice and feedback. Even when we have valid and reliable exams that test what we mean to be testing, if the course doesn’t include adequate opportunities for practice and feedback, students might not do as well on the exams. We can help students develop their skills over time by including opportunities for practice and feedback both in and out of class.
  • Inappropriate level of mastery. If an exam asks for students to work at a level of sophistication not possible for a novice, they will underperform. We can make adjustments so that exam questions are both challenging and level-appropriate, and provide opportunities for students to practice answering questions or solving problems of a similar type and difficulty level as what will be on the exam. A high-stakes test is not the right place to ask students to perform a challenging higher-order thinking task for the first time.
  • Expensive textbook. When a course textbook is very expensive, the sad reality is that many students will try to get through the course without buying it. If they need the textbook to prepare for the exam, and they often do, they just won’t be able to do as well as we would wish. When three students share one textbook, none of them might get adequate time to prepare for class or study. We can help by adopting free or low-cost textbooks and other resources.
  • Time Management. Students often underestimate how much time will be needed to prepare for an exam and/or how frequently they should be studying. They also have competing demands on their time and may have trouble prioritizing. We can help by sharing advice on how much and how frequently they need to study. Sometimes they are more likely to heed good advice when it comes from other students, so some of our colleagues invite students to create a “How to Succeed in This Course” guide or video to share with the next semester’s class.

If students struggled with a recent exam, there’s still hope! It’s only the middle of the semester, so there’s still time to recover. We want to make sure they continue to put in effort and keep coming to class, though, rather than giving up, so we’ll need to communicate encouragement. Students who did poorly may be feeling shame. They may be fearful of seeking help, but we can remind them that generations of students have struggled with college, and that’s why help is built in. We can steer them to resources like ACE, FSU’s learning center, where students can get support with both coursework and improving study skills. We can also encourage them to work with classmates and even help them create study groups. We can do a lot to normalize struggle, and we can build in opportunities for redemption. Some faculty even give a second exam on the same material a week or so after the first, to make sure that everyone has a handle on the important concepts before moving on, or they offer an opportunity for students to earn back some points by completing an exam wrapper.

Above all, we want to encourage students to persist rather than giving up. We want them to come to class, so they don’t fall behind; we want them to get more practice and feedback, rather than less. If your students did not do as well as you’d hoped on a recent exam, we are eager to help you figure out what went wrong and make adjustments as needed. To request a consultation, email us at We look forward to working with you!