Let me ask you a question: Someone ever tell you what you should to if you failed an exam? Probably not.

While thereĀ“s lots of advice on how to prepare for exams, almost no talks about how to handle the results.

And that’s what some of us would need most: tips on what to do after we’ve failed an exam.

But before I let you in on those, I want to tell you a short story:

This year, I scored 40% in my first IB maths exam. I used to be the perfect student and a B was my definition of bad. So – needless to say – I was devasted.

exam failure: test grade 40%

Yet two months later, I got a 7 (the highest possible grade in the IB programme).

What did I do?

I’ll show you the secret techniques I used to improve my test scores by over 30%.

#1: Locate your trouble spots

I’ve only been able to raise my grade by pinpointing my trouble spots. I needed to know on which questions I scored less than 50% of the marks so I could train the skills I was lacking.

But that’s not enough. I also needed to know why my skills were lacking. So I thought back to my exam preparation and realised two things:

  • I studied only 60 minutes. In hindsight, this was too little.
  • I’d been practising questions without understanding the theory first.

So I made a plan for improvement: I would practise maths every other day for 30 minutes and I would look online for help with the concepts I didn’t understand from the textbook.

Action tips:

I. Answer these questions.

(1) Where did you score less than 50% of the available marks? (2) What questions did you find hard to answer in the exam? (3) Where did you score worse than expected? (4) What questions/topics surprised you?

II. Reflect on your exam prep.

(1) How did you prepare for your exam? (2) What revision techniques worked? Which didn't?

III. Design your strategy for improvement.

(1) Will you adapt your revision techniques? (2) Which topics do you need to revise again? (3) Where do you need to ask for help?

#2 Fix your mistakes

Now that you’ve identified your trouble spots, you want to correct your answers. Maybe you’re doing this in class already, but in case you’re not, here’s what I would do:

First, compare you answers with the answer key or mark scheme and play spot the difference between your answers and the type of responses required for the higher grades.

For knowledge-based problems, make immediate corrections and ensure that you fully understand the concepts demanded by the question.

If you had to write an essay or solve a question without a standard answer, ask to look at the exam of the person who got the highest grade.

Here’s what you can ask, if you’re a little shy:

Hey [insert name]. I see you got [insert grade] and but I didn't do too well and I'm not happy with my score. Would you mind if I take a quick look at your exam, so I can see more clearly how I could improve?

Most students will be honoured by this type of request, and you’ll gain invaluable feedback and often original ideas in the subject you’re studying.

#3: Talk to your teacher (but don’t ask for a better grade)

Your teacher is your most valuable asset.

If you admit to them that you didn’t do well and ask for specific advice, they’re usually more than willing to help you.

Here’s what you can say (adapted from You Failed Your Class… Now What?):

I didn't do well on the last test, because [I'm struggling with the material/didn't prepare enough/didn't ask for help when I needed it] and I wanted to ask you about my next steps. What would suggest I do to [study more effectively/increase my understanding of the subject matter, etc.]?

Or if you already have a plan:

I'm planning to do [insert activity] to [increase my understanding of the subject, improve my time management skills, improve my exam skills]. I was wondering if you [could help me with/give my advice on] XYZ.

And if you want to retake an exam (for practise and not for a better grade) you can ask:

I was hoping I can resit this exam. It's not for a better overall grade, as I'm already doing [insert activity] to achieve this, but I feel like redoing the test could help me with my exam skills, and it would allow me to see whether my progress is on the right track.

What would you say to your teacher? Or have you ever failed and made a spectacular recovery? Please share your stories in the comments.