I’ve worked with students at colleges across the U.S., and have seen a variety of course formats at large public universities, small private colleges, and many other types. I’ve helped them to be successful in a broad variety of classes, ranging from History and English to Chemistry, Engineering, and many others. Doing well on a college-level exam can be tough, but with work it’s possible for any student to succeed.
There are many reasons students fail exams in college, such as not studying or being unprepared. Some may not ask for help when they don’t understand something, or they may procrastinate when getting started studying. There are some things, if you don’t do them, that can signal that you’re about to fail an upcoming exam. If you’re making any of the following mistakes, it should tell you that you’re at risk of a bad grade or worse on a test.
Not Doing The Reading
Ah, the flexibility of college – go to class if you want, take some notes, then download the Professor’s power points then study those for the test. You’re pretty smart and a good tester, so you’ll just channel your inner Einstein and do just fine, right? Well only if you don’t want to get a bad grade or outright fail the exam. In college, you can’t cruise through on your good memory like you did in high school, because unlike then many Professors draw heavily from the assigned readings for test questions. In fact for many large classes and subjects, like introductory psychology, history, communications, and others, the majority of the questions will come from the reading, assigned homework, supplemental articles, and more. The reason for this is that the exams for such large classes are usually scantron graded, so multiple choice questions are the norm. In fact, some Professors don’t even make their own exams for big classes, they simply use those that are published with the text. Questions on these types of exams seem like random questions right from the text, with no logical overlap in to lecture. This is because the person who designed the test did not give the class lecture, which makes knowing the assigned reading for these kinds of classes a key part of doing well on exams.
Putting Off The Homework
Most college courses have some kind of homework, whether it’s reading, online exercises, quizzes, or something else. For all classes the homework is usually a great example of what information is important for the class, and is perfect material for Professors to take test questions from. But a problem arises when assigned homework is not graded, and students tend to put off such homework to the very end, if they do it at all. This can become a huge problem when doing well on the homework is critical for doing well on the tests, like for math, chemistry, physics, or other computation-based classes. Some Professors who teach those classes may actually say the homework isn’t graded, but that puts the student in the position of not knowing whether they are getting the calculations right. Without knowing what errors they are making, they will just repeat their mistakes when it comes time for the test, and this can earn a failing grade. Putting off homework not only misses valuable information about what may be on a test, it can also miss the opportunity to get important feedback for what you’re doing wrong so you can fix it before the next exam.
Not Going To Class
Another glorious thing about college is that attendance is optional right? You read the syllabus and know how many classes you can miss, classes so you’re good. Well wrong, at least for exams. Not only are you missing important lecture notes, some Professors will give impromptu review sessions during class right before a test, where they may practically give the answers away. In fact, if attendance is low on that day, I’ve seen Professors even put bonus questions with a “secret answer” for those who attended as a reward for their dutifulness. In general, classes that have exams that are less factual will require consistent attendance to understand the material well enough to not fail the exam. For example, English may require subtle interpretations of passages, plays, or poems that students must replicate for essay exams. These can only be understood by attending lecture and taking notes on the themes or aspects the Professor feels is important. Also, some Professors may actually give students the essay questions during the lecture before an exam, so attending class has many reasons behind to help not fail the test.
Not Being Serious About Studying
A nearly universal mistake that I’ve seen in all the students I work with at the onset is not putting in enough study time. Just exactly how much time they should be spending is always a mystery to them, but college Advisors often know these rules. Considering that the reading must be done, homework completed, and all related work done for the chapters that will be on the test, it’s a lot of time. The unspoken rule for college is 1:3:3, which means that for every one hour in lecture, expect to spend up to three hours outside of class doing regular work, and this does not even count studying for a test. So for a class in a 15 week semester, if the first test is after week four ends, it’s likely chapters 1-4 are on the test, and the class will have met for 12 hours. If you do the math, it will take 36 hours for that one class to complete all the supporting tasks, and only then you can actually begin to study. On average, 8-10 hours to prepare for a test is average, but if you want an A or the class has high volumes of information like biology, it could be double that. Students often disbelieve how much work a class will take, end up doing the bare minimum, and wind up cramming for exams only to find out later that they earned a bad grade.
Not Using The Study Guide
I would love to say that every Professor gives a study guide for exams, but based on the classes my students have taken over the last decade I can tell you this isn’t the case. So if you do get a study guide from the Professor, you should definitely use it. A good study guide will summarize all the concepts, terms, and other information that represents what could be asked on an exam, so they’re a great place to start. If you work your way through the study guide, defining all of the terms and concepts, this will lay a nice foundation for understanding the generality of what will be on the exam. However, study guides can be misleading, and as I said they represent what could show up on an exam, not what definitely will. Don’t ignore your class notes, assigned readings, charts or graphs in the text, calculations, or other information to merely focus on the study guide. I’ve had many students complain that “the test just didn’t match the study guide,” and this is because the took the minimal pathway and only studied what was in the guide and ignored everything else. But again, if you’re lucky enough to get a study guide, definitely use it since that information has a high probability of being on the exam. You can always talk with your Professor to clarify information in the guide, which will help you even more.
Not Asking For Help
Many students say that talking with Professors is among the last things they want to do. In fact, after a low grade, some will actively avoid Profs or TAs, when it should be the opposite. Asking for help, whether it’s clarifying your understanding of a topic or getting deeper in to learning how to do math calculations, is a key step to scoring well on exams that measure what you’ve learned in a class. Some students say they feel too intimidated by Professors, feel self-conscious, or that it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help. In college the truth is the opposite of this: Students are learners, they are not expected to already know the course information, if they did they would be the Professor right? So in essence, it’s your job as a student to not know, which makes asking for help perfectly aligned with your being there. When it comes to exams, asking questions to understand a topic better is one way to get help, but very often this kind of information can be looked up in the text or on the internet. The bigger is about procedural tasks, like math calculations, which are applied functions and cannot be simply memorized. Asking a Professor or TA how to use certain formulas and when can they apply be a big part of asking for help, since when it comes time to take an exam you’ll need to know how to use these or risk a failing grade. Some colleges feel that students lack the resilience to be proactive and help themselves, but taking small steps can lead to big results for exams
Not Attending The Review Session
Not all Professors hold review sessions before an exam, and if you’re one of the lucky ones who do have review sessions before a test you should definitely attend. These review sessions are times when your questions can be answered, where you can learn from the questions of others, and where the Professor or TA may even give away important information that can help you to prepare. For example, you might get a big “hint, hint” from the TA on topics that may appear as short answer questions, or the Professor may outright give away the essay questions for those who were conscientious enough to come to the review. In general, though, a review may highlight things you didn’t think were important for the test, like information from secondary articles, videos, or other peripheral assignments that you may not have even read yet. A review can also give you the chance to fill in gaps in your notes, and it gives another exposure to the exam information that is a critical piece to remembering it come test time.
Thinking The Material Is Boring
It’s always tough to take a class when we’re not thrilled with the topic, and at one time or another every college student has to do this usually to meet a graduation requirement. We all enjoy taking classes that have subjects we’re deeply interested in, but in reality that’s a luxury. We get spoiled and expect that every class will touch our minds and hearts, but that’s not the case. Business majors may need to grind through Calculus 1 and 2 in some programs, biology majors end up with physics classes, and psych majors may have several stats classes to get through. Trying to make a personal connection with the classes and work your doing, even if boring, can help take the edge off of this feeling. If you ask yourself “what can I use this for after graduation or in my other classes?” it may help you to find what’s applicable, interesting, or meaningful about what seems like mere drudgery. Getting past this feeling of boredom with a subject is important since it will affect your performance in the class. You may start avoiding lecture, putting off homework, and the next thing of course is failing the tests.
Putting The Class Second To Other Things
As I mentioned above, any given class can take up a great deal of time. But if you’re attending full-time (12 credit hours in the semester system), you’d be surprised exactly how much time you should be spending on your classes. For a single class, lecture will take up about 3 hours per week, then add another 6 to 9 hours to each class for outside work. That’s upwards of 12 hours, and for 4 classes this makes up to 48 hours of work each week. This is why they call it full-time status, because it’s like a job, and doesn’t necessarily include studying for exams. But many students don’t dedicate enough time to their courses, and end up putting sports, social, or other activities as their top priority. This then becomes a problem when they become always behind in their work, don’t keep up with the reading, and feel unprepared when it comes time for a test. If you set your classes as a low priority, it will eventually show up in your grades, and likely result in failing one or more exams.
Underestimating Essay Tests
A very common occurrence, especially for freshmen who are new to the college system, is to not be able to score well on essay tests. In high school they may have been told that they are a good writer, then end up not being able to earn good grades on essay tests later on. Essay exams are a different animal at the college level, and scoring points on them requires that a student use terms, concepts, definitions, dates, and other information from class in the answer. The lack of good performance on these is really twofold: First, students don’t realize that you essentially have to tell all the information back to the Professor on the exam, exactly as you learned it in class. Some students feel that they are telling the Professor what they already know, which is true, but they want to see if you know it. This is a stylistic issue about how the essay is written, and meandering answers that go off topic, don’t use course content, or otherwise don’t stick to the question result in bad grades. Second, in order to write in this style, the information must be memorized precisely. Unlike multiple choice exams that only require that you recognize the right answer, essay exams require that one recall the information in full, which is a much more arduous memory function. It takes much more intense preparation for an essay exam, and more specific writing, which makes it very easy to earn a bad grade on an essay test.
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Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national level Higher Education Consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s worked with students and parents across the U.S. about college issues since 2001, and is a member of CSRDE that focuses on best practices in helping students. He is also a member of NACADA, the national college advising association in the U.S. Please see the program page for services Jeff offers.