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3 ways to respond to exam failure

A retro arcade machine that signifies the potential fun of trying again

“Failure is temporary, as long as you keep going, you’ll get there in the end” - this is what one of our CIMA students told us, and we couldn’t agree more.

Failure can be scary and off putting, and can prevent us from re-taking exams - but everyone experiences it at some point. It’s certainly a recurring issue our students face, so we wanted to offer some thoughts on how to respond to it.

Unlock your resilience

It’s important to be mindful that everybody has ‘resilience’. There’s no evidence that proves resilient people experience less traumatic events or have fewer barriers thrown their way. So what do they do? They own the narrative – when you are faced with a setback it’s easy to continually revisit the event and look for a reason as to why it happened. This is of course an important part of learning, but there is little point saying to yourself “If only I had done this”. Change and own the narrative.

Instead, ask yourself if the conversation you’re having is helping you get closer towards your goal of passing the exam, and if not change it. Shift it from the past to the present or future, ask yourself ‘What can I do differently?’. Really investing your mindset in these types of questions can really help you unlock your inherent resilience.

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

- C. S. Lewis

Change your mindset

A mindset is little more than a series of assumptions and beliefs that lead to an opinion. What’s important here is to recognise that they are not fixed, they are only assumptions.

American Psychologist, Carol Dweck, has produced work around Fixed and Growth mindsets, and provides us with evidence as to the importance of having the right mindset and how best to think about it.

Dweck argues that students who believe their abilities are carved in stone, and that intelligence is fixed, will find it very difficult to move forward when it comes to failure.

Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe they can improve, that intelligence is not fixed, and that failure is something to learn.

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

- John C. Maxwell

To change your mindset you should revisit your assumptions, review what you think they mean and change the negative mindset to a positive one. Dweck has a top tip, just add “NOT YET” to the end of a statement. For example, I don’t understand this topic – at least “NOT YET”.

However, it is very easy to confuse this with fooling yourself - 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 to recognise that working harder will give you a better chance of passing, which of course it will.

We know this can be hard, but try to avoid making emotional judgements as to why you failed. It’s far better to spend that energy figuring out what exactly caused the failure. Was it, for example, a lack of work? Be honest, was there one area or topic that you simply had no idea what to do. Did you run out of time?

Improve your study habits

Remember if you’re re-taking an exam you now have an advantage, as you’ve done this all before. You have a base knowledge of this subject so you’re not starting from scratch. You’ll most likely already have materials, revision notes and a bank of past questions.

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, try and think was there anything different in terms of style, complexity etc.

Revision notes – although you will have an existing set of notes, it’s a good idea to start with a clean sheet of paper and rewrite them. By all means use your existing notes as a template or 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.

Question bank – as with revision notes you will 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 completely different set of questions.

Timetable – having a timetable was important last time, and it’s essential for a resit because you are more likely to have limited time available so need to maximise what you do have.

Examiners' reports and script reviews - they can be very helpful. One word of caution though, script reviews are not remarking exercises. They are there to provide personal feedback on your exam performance.

If a script review is not available you could sit the exam again but this time in the comfort of your own home. The purpose here is to provide some insight as to what went wrong. It’s better if you can get your answer marked by a third party, this doesn’t have to be an expert e.g. teacher but it will help.

Don’t worry that you will know 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 very difficult to do something differently next time.

Failure – the only way to learn

Don’t forget we have a range of tutors and academic support experts on hand for any specific needs you may have. Plus many useful blogs with great study tips and motivational pieces to draw from.

This blog is largely inspired by articles written by, and credited to, Kaplan's Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith. Stuart currently appears as the host of Kaplan’s Learn Better podcast.