How to ... Help students who fail exams

July 9, 1999

WHAT - Moira Peelo and Terry Wareham consider what lecturers can do when promising students perform badly

WHY - Failure is part of university life and yet a failed student can say as much about the lecturer as the student


Students do fail exams and failure does matter. Even though end-of-course marks for many degrees no longer depend entirely on exams, exam performance still counts. When exams are important then failure is an issue. Where exams matter, then resits at the end of the summer are the reality for some students.

Exams have become the Cinderella of the learning support world. Attention tends to be focused more on writing and on coursework assessment about which large amounts of advice is available for both staff and students. Yet, as every lecturer knows painfully well at this time of the year, there are some students for whom examinations are just too difficult (not necessarily less able students).

Perhaps they are students who are so unhappy doing exams that they perform well below their capabilities; more rarely, there are students who fail examinations after a protracted period of struggle with a course; or maybe life has gone wrong and personal difficulties have exerted extra pressure at exam time.

Whatever has brought about the situation, staff can find themselves meeting students who have failed soon after the news has finally broken.

Other people's anxiety can feel overwhelming and so it is worthwhile to explore where you stand before you meet students who have failed. What are your responsibilities:

as a human being?

to the other students

taking exams?

to the standards in your


as an educationist?

Clarity about your role can help you strike a balance between compassion and realism, while trying to avoid being either patronising or seeming to be cold and unhelpful. Exams are ultimately about performance and so, while you must be sympathetic to individual circumstances, there is a responsibility to other students sitting the same exam to ensure that marks are meaningful with regards to performance. As an academic, the marks you award are valued because they are an evaluation by a specialist in a particular area of study. Hence, that evaluation contributes to defining acceptable achievement in a discipline such as chemistry, physics, English or whatever.

You may feel caught between concern for a person's circumstances and the knowledge that the exam performance was not acceptable. As an educationist you may worry about your teaching - could I have done more? Yet other students have attended the same course and coped sufficiently well. Filter these sorts of concerns and contradictions out beforehand so that you can limit your discomfort and confusion if faced with strong emotions in the meeting. Before you meet a student who has failed, try to work out what you want to achieve: what is the outcome you are working towards? How are you going to achieve that outcome?

When you do meet, allow a clear space and time to focus on the student; and agree in advance the length of time allowed for the meeting. Do not make personal comments about a student's capabilities, remember it is the exam performance which is below standard, not the person.

Review your facts beforehand, especially the range of marks achieved; and be clear in your own mind about the nature and extent of failure. Discuss what options there are (having checked your facts in advance): are resits a possibility? Do they need to redo a course? Or is it the end of this particular academic road for the student?

Take time to hear how the student sees the situation and the options available. Try to avoid being drawn into arguments. Remember that failure is often experienced as humiliating (among many other emotions) and meetings with academic staff in particular can feel deeply uncomfortable - not all students' social skills include being able to cope well under that kind of pressure.

If students are going to be allowed either to return to resit exams or to continue with courses, then they need to address the problems they face with exams.

Addressing those problems works at emotional and physical levels as well as thinking about study strategies.

Continuing students need to consider early in the new academic year how to get appropriate support to develop the best strategies for them over time. Despite overwork, many academic staff, thankfully, continue to offer support to struggling students.

The humanity that drives this supportiveness is not lessened by sharing the load with colleagues, such as counsellors, doctors or learning support staff. Do your students know where to go for help - have you got the necessary information, leaflets or website addresses to pass onto them?

If students are preparing for resits, it is as well to cover some basics about taking exams just in case students have fundamental misunderstandings about the examination process.

Does their approach to revision suit the style of exam to be taken?What is the style of the exam, and are they clear what that style is? If they are not clear about the style of exam, how are they going to begin to find out about it? Is what they usually do suitable for some types of exam but not for others?

It might be crystal clear to you as a marker that what is tested in a multiple-choice test is quite different from an essay-based exam, but not all students (especially under pressure) understand what the examination process is about. Nor do students always understand the implications for revision of different styles of exam paper.

As a lecturer you have the opportunity to help all students to improve their strategies for coping with exams - not just those with particular exam problems - by your course design and style of teaching. There may be little more that you can do for this year's students, but you could consider undertaking a gentle review of your teaching style.

Allow yourself a year to develop how you teach students about exams and how you respond to exam failure - perhaps start by reviewing your own strengths in working in this area.

Gather information: put aside a place for storing any ideas, articles, references or information leaflets, along with anything else that strikes you as relevant or helpful.

Question how you run revision seminars: do you make clear what students need to know about the style of your exam papers? Are you open about what your exams are testing: memory, connections, ideas? Have you considered running an "exam skills" workshop suitable for your subject of study? Are there materials or learning support people locally who might help you do this?

Failure in universities is an integral part of institutional structures, operating as a demarcator of successful work, yet it is experienced individually and in isolation. This means that every year university teachers, support staff and students struggle to come to terms with the issues involved, redesigning the failure-wheel in the light of specific circumstances.

It can be disappointing for staff if promising students perform unexpectedly badly and, as a teacher, one may feel at a loss about how to respond constructively to any student who fails. But however uncomfortable staff may feel, one should always remember that a student who has just failed an exam feels far, far worse.

Moira Peelo is a study consultant in the counselling service at the University of Lancaster. Terry Wareham is director of the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Lancaster.

A symposium on "Failing students in higher education" is being held at

Lancaster University on July 15-16. Enquiries:


David Landau has failed twice at university. Having studied government and politics A levels at school, it seemed natural to opt for political sciences degree.

But arriving at Birmingham University Mr Landau's expectations were shattered. "University was completely different," he said. "I immediately started having difficulty with parts of the course, plus the people were so different."

Coming from a fairly working-class secondary school, Mr Landau was surprised to find himself alongside public school boys and he quickly felt isolated. "I was having problems with the system of self-regulation," he said.

"There was so much freedom, it was totally different to the sixth-form."

It was not long before Mr Landau stopped attending lectures and turned up at tutorials only occasionally, often five minutes before the end. "I ignored the letters from the university and concentrated on going out," he said. "But that was not making me happy."

At the end of the first year, Mr Landau sat his exams having done very little revision. He never managed to catch up with lecture notes he missed and failed two of five exams.

In a department with 150 students, tutors did their best to help and took a softly, softly approach. They offered him the option of a year out but he decided to resit. But instead of studying, he wasted time.

He scraped a 40 per cent pass on one paper and flunked the other. "I was enthusiastic about the core subjects but the subsidiary courses were the real problem," he said. The difficulty of his situation was not lost on Mr Landau and he sought help from the student counselling service.

During the second year he was re-doing the failed philosophy course and struggling to keep up with six modules instead of five. None of his

problems was resolved and by Christmas he had stopped going in. "Eventually a tutor called my parents and they were really shocked, they had no idea," Mr Landau said.

"Even my friends didn't realise how bad things had got, I had to go to a public phone box to explain to my parents what was going on."

The department treated him firmly but fairly said Mr Landau. He was given three options: move to a different course, take a year out or resit the exams externally. He took a year out and enrolled on an African studies programme. He was working 25 hours per week in a job and fitting in 13 hours compulsory lectures. "It was fine until Christmas when I was so exhausted I just vegetated. It all went pear shaped from then."

Mr Landau stopped attending again and eventually his old political science tutor knocked on the door one day and took him to the pub for a chat. "He was brilliant, but it was too late, I'd gone over the precipice. Although they arranged for me to resit the exams later, I never showed up, and that was the last contact I had with the university."

Was there anything the authorities didn't do that might have helped? "They were pretty good but they spotted my problems too late. They didn't transfer my records from politics to African studies, so the tutors there were not really looking out for me, which was a shame really."

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