Everyone else in the room was smiling when they looked over their mid-term exams. I wanted to cry. I had never imagined failing a test in graduate school. Failing a test for my second master’s degree, no less. I mean, I thought I knew how to do this.

Just stop and breathe, I thought. Don’t panic. Do what you have always done. Do what you wish your students had done when they failed a test.

As a former high school and intermediate grade English teacher, I had seen so many students respond by doing nothing when they received a failing grade. They felt it was too late. The few who would ask if anything could be done, asked in spirit of malaise: with a passive tone of voice, a floppy arm, and a my-mom-is-making-me-ask-this expression on their faces.

This is what I wish they had done. This is what you should do if you fail in college:

1. Go talk to your professor. Remember that you are approaching a person, not an automated kiosk. Your professor does not have to do anything you ask. But! And this is a very big but — he or she might. Professors and teachers love to see their students taking ownership of their learning. If you use a confident tone of voice and take an eager posture, it will make a difference. If you communicate that this whole thing matters to you, then your professor will listen. Besides, there is more leeway with grading than you think. A professor will be more likely to show mercy to the student who respectfully asks for it. By the way, you should probably start by asking for the smallest possible piece of grace. Always ask in a way that requires more of you than it does of your professor.

In my case, I walked up to my professor after class, and our brief conversation went like this:

“Sir, I am disappointed with myself when I look at this test. Obviously, there were a lot of things I could have done differently to prepare. I would really appreciate a chance to redeem this in some way, so that I can pass the course. Would it be possible for me to write an essay for two points of extra credit on this test? May I do extra work to earn a 70?”

He said that was not possible.


On to step two.

2. Calculate your current grade position. The percentage weight for each assignment is listed in your syllabus. If you haven’t been keeping track of where your grade stands, do so immediately. Play with your grades to find out what you need to make on each of the remaining assignments in order to earn the final grade you want in the course.

In my case, my current standing was a C. All of my previous assignments had received high scores, but they were not weighted as heavily as the mid-term. The only thing left to factor in was the final exam. I calculated what I would need to score in order to earn a B for the course. Then I calculated what I would need for an A. If I wanted to squeak by with a 91 for the course, I had to earn a 99 on the final. Almost perfect, in a course that was very challenging. I had two weeks left to try for it.

3. Do what you need to do to earn the grades you need to earn.

I wrote study questions on index cards.

I posted study questions on sticky notes throughout the house.

I asked my classmates and joined their study group (not something I usually like to do, but I saw it was a necessary step for me).

On my iPhone, I recorded myself reading some facts for the exam, then I set my alarm to go off by playing that recording. Every morning, I woke up with those important details on my mind (Plus, I got out of bed faster because I wanted to turn off the grating sound of my own voice!)

I played the recording when I drove in the car.

I read from my notes before I went to bed (I heard somewhere that you can easily memorize and internalize information when you read your notes right before you go to sleep).

On the day of the exam, I hoped that I would get an 89 on the exam. I did not feel that I had it all down perfectly. But I did. I earned a 100 on the final exam and secured an A for the course.

It can be devastating when you see a failing grade on a major exam in college, but you do not have to give up. Keep going. Too much money and time are at stake! You do not want to let go of a course unless you absolutely have to. If you fail an assignment, remember to talk to your professor as soon as possible, then calculate your current grade, and then do what you need to do. You may have to enter an intense time of preparation that will stretch you. It won’t last forever.

The most important part of this process is not making a certain grade for the test or the course. The most important part of this process is becoming skilled in the ownership of your learning.

Taking ownership is an ability that will last your entire life, improving your jobs, your relationships, and everything you do.

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