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Science 101: What To Do If You Failed A Midterm

here’s a relaxing photo. it’s going to be okay :)

Now that the first series of STEM midterms are safely behind us, it’s a good time to think about ways in which we can improve our test-taking skills for the next batch of exams. In this week’s edition of Science 101, Bwog Science Editor, Intro Bio TA, and science intro-sequence veteran Alex Tang brings you his advice on what to do if you didn’t do so hot on your first midterm.

Most of us know that feeling – you log onto Canvas to check that grade from last week’s gen chem or astrophysics or immunology midterm. You’re expecting a B+, a B maybe… you know you definitely missed two questions, but everything else seemed okay. You click to see your grade, a feeling akin to ripping out a bandaid. Your heart sinks – you flunked. What went wrong?

  • Don’t panic. Chances are, you’re allowed to drop your lowest test score (for me, gen chem, Mowsh bio, and orgo have had this policy – double check your syllabus though). If this is the case, you’re effectively still on a clean slate, albeit with an unpleasant wake-up call. In many of my science courses, my first midterm did end up being the score that I dropped, so it’s definitely likely that you’ll improve if you put in more work. Many compassionate professors have this policy because they want students to acclimate to the structure and pace of the class, and to adjust their study habits accordingly. If you can’t drop an exam, don’t fret. Your midterm is weighted lighter than your upcoming exams, so a comeback is definitely within reach (you’ll just really need to work for it).
  • Debrief how the test went. When you left the testing room, did you have that gut feeling that you did poorly? Or was the bad grade a shock to you? Did you run out of time on the exam? Were most of your errors due to carelessness, or a lack of understanding the content? Go over every mistake you made on the exam, and analyze why you made that mistake. Figure out what concepts you missed, what types of problems tended to trip you up, and how you could avoid making those errors next time.
  • Debrief your study methods (work smarter). Based on your analysis of how the test went wrong (previous tip), figure out how you can modify your study methods to avoid the same types of errors you made on the previous exam. Your optimal study habits might depend on the class you’re taking. For example:
    • If you’re in a quantitative STEM class, it’s possible that you spent too much time reading the textbook, and not enough time practicing the actual assigned practice problems. It’s especially imperative to redo practice problems that you got wrong the first time.
    • If you were tripped up by specific pieces of content on the exam, it’s possible that you might need to read lecture notes more carefully. Some classes post comprehensive lecture notes or recordings (eg. Mowsh bio or immunology), where any detail could be tested. It might be a good idea to review the material a couple times after lecture until you’re familiar with all the small details.

  • Hustle. This is an obvious one, but the only way to improve for the next exam is to put in the work. As the last tip implied, it’s time to ramp up the effort. This could mean doing the practice problems more often and more carefully, or re-reading lecture notes or listening to the recordings. If you rarely went to class before the first midterm, going to class in the future might help by giving you a structured, regular time in which to engage with the material.
  • Study earlier. Most people don’t do so well on midterms when they underestimate how long it’ll take for them to soak in the material. If you’re not keeping up with the class, try to give yourself at least a week to fully prepare yourself for the upcoming exam. Go to review sessions and office hours with questions to ask.
  • Talk with people. Professors are always happy to talk with you about ways in which you could improve. Ask them about their suggestions for you, and actually follow their advice (they know what’s best for their own class). If you’re stuck on a problem set, bring your questions to recitation or office hours, where you can get help from qualified people, instead of Yahoo Answers.
  • Don’t play the blame game. Caveat to the last tip – If you’re going to talk with your professor or TA, don’t argue with them about how you deserve more partial credit, etc. Other TAs and I have agreed that it’s rather annoying to encounter a student who nitpicks on every single missed point (it also looks bad for the student). Only submit a regrade request if you notice an egregious grading error (the vast majority of regrade requests don’t result in a grading change). If you’re iffy about whether or not you deserve more partial credit for a problem, don’t submit a regrade request. It’s much better to focus on studying harder for the next exam.
  • Breathe. Put things into perspective – you probably know this already, but one exam isn’t going to make or break you. Exams are totally manageable, given enough time and the right kind of preparation. Please don’t let this one grade affect your well-being – continue getting enough sleep, eating well, seeing friends, calling home, etc. Stay healthy!

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