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Exam resits - get back on that horse

Stuart Pedley Smith - Kaplan Head of Learning
Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile

Failing exams is a fact of life.

I’ve blogged about it many times because we all deal with it at some point.

In the exam world, we follow failure with a resit. But what should happen between failure and sitting the new exam? How can we best study for an exam we’ve already sat?

Repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.

C. S. Lewis

Change your mindset

Your mindset is made up of assumptions and beliefs that lead to an opinion. What’s important is recognising they are assumptions. Carol Dwecks* work around Fixed and Growth mindsets states the importance of having the right mindset and how to think about it.

She argues that students who believe that intelligence is fixed, find it difficult to move forward. But those with a growth mindset think the opposite. They believe in improvement, that intelligence is not fixed, and that failure is something to learn from. This puts them in a better position to learn from their mistakes and try again.

The difference between ‘average people’ and ‘achieving people’ is their perception of and response to failure.

John C. Maxwell

Failing an exam is a fact. Why you failed, and what caused it, are often assumptions. The secret here is to revisit your assumptions. Find out what you think they mean, and change the negative mindset to a positive one.

It’s easy to think you’re fooling yourself. But this is not about putting a positive spin on a set of poor results. If you didn’t do enough work, telling yourself it will be better next time will achieve little. The positive mindset here is recognising that working harder will give you a better chance of passing, which of course it will.

Here’s another great way to think of it:

A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.

B.F Skinner (famous behaviourist)

Learn from your mistakes

Spend time finding out what may have caused the failure. Was it a lack of work or effort? Be honest with yourself. Was there one area, or topic, where you had no idea what to do? Did you run out of time?

Examiners’ reports and script reviews can be very helpful. They provide personal feedback on your exam performance. However they are an additional cost and if you're on a budget you may find what you want from the published resources.

If a script review isn’t available you could sit the exam again, but this time in the comfort of your own home (as opposed to the CBE suite). This can offer insight into what went wrong. It’s better if you can get your answer marked by a third party though. This doesn’t have to be an expert (e.g. a Kaplan Tutor) but it will help.

Don’t worry about already knowing the answers. Think about this in the same way that the police reconstruct a crime - it’s to give you insight. Not knowing what you did wrong makes it  difficult to correct next time.

Refine your study

Firstly, remember you’ve done this all before. You’ve a base knowledge of the subject, and you’re not starting from scratch. So you’ll already have materials, revision notes and a bank of past questions. If you don’t - then the good news is you now know exactly what you need!

Past papers – Analyse what came up in your exam and add the findings to your existing analysis of past papers. With objective tests, or where getting past papers is not possible, think about differences in terms of style, complexity etc.

Revision notes – Although you’ll have existing notes, start with a clean sheet of paper and rewrite them. By all means, use your existing notes as a guide, but re-reading your old revision notes is not particularly effective. You might also want to consider an alternative note taking style, for example mind maps.

New question bank – As with revision notes you’ll also have a book of past questions. Get a clean copy e.g. one with no workings or writing in the margin. This is a mindset trick. A clean copy will make each question feel new. Also consider buying or borrowing a different set of questions.

Timetable – Having a timetable was important last time but it’s essential for a resit. You’re more likely to have limited time so need to maximise what you have.

Get back on that horse

I hope some of the above helps your quest for better results next time round.

All that remains is for me to wish you the best of luck with the resit and take note of what Zig Ziglar** said – failure is an event, not a person.

Stuart Pedley Smith is Kaplan Financial’s Head of Learning. For any learning subjects you may wish to read content about, email us on

*Professor of psychology at Stanford University
**Motivational speaker