Hide, or Fight? Dealing with Disappointment

If you’ve just found out that you’ve failed an exam or a final piece of written work, read on. This might also be useful to you if your final mark is much lower than you expected it to be, which sadly is something that happens to some excellent students every year.

I have one particular, personal question I want to ask you, and it’s important: so please read this right to the end, even if you’re struggling to face the thought of your result.


Have you ever failed before?

I hadn’t, until one day I did. I’d never even come close to failing. I’d succeeded at everything: and then I failed a final assessment. I was in shock.

There were excuses for my failure: lots of them. It had been a rough year. But knowing that there are reasons doesn’t make you feel any better when you see that result.


Did you expect to do badly?

Was there a nagging voice in the back of your head that told you this was going to happen? Did you simply fail to put the work in? That was the case with me. I knew perfectly well that I’d been turning in sub-standard essays, doing the reading at the last minute and trying to sound as if I knew what I was talking about when I really didn’t have a clue. I was on track for disaster: yet when it happened, it still hit me hard. Of course, knowing that it’s all your own fault doesn’t make you feel great!


Did it come out of nowhere?

This is the worst thing, I think: when excellent students who’ve worked hard all year suddenly fail (usually an assessed essay, but sometimes an exam), out of nowhere. I see it every year, and it’s just awful. It crushes people. That feeling, when you know your essay was brilliant and you spent months on it, only to find that the markers hated it: that’s one of the worst things you’ll ever experience in your “student journey”.


So what will you do about it?

This is the big question, and the answer to it will show what you’re made of.

I’d love to say that you should follow my example: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take the criticisms on the chin, revise and resubmit (or resit the exam), and come out stronger.

Of course, I didn’t actually do any of that. I crawled into a metaphorical hole. I didn’t even look at the feedback for a year or so, after I’d well and truly missed the resubmission window. I didn’t sign up for another module for over two years, and even when I did, it took me a long time to convince myself that I deserved to pass. And I was supposed to know better: I knew that academic careers inevitably involve as much failure as success. I’d been rejected from one journal before being published by another; I’d had a funding application turned down, before I rewrote it and resubmitted it and was successful the following year. All perfectly normal and expected. I knew what I was supposed to do after a set-back: but that FAIL squashed me flat.

I did eventually get back into the same area of study, and I achieved the qualification I’d been aiming for, four years later. But it took me a lot longer to forgive myself: not so much for screwing up, but more for letting it beat me.

So I’m telling you now, as one failure to another: don’t be me! This is what you need to do, if you want to fight back.

  1. Read your feedback. If you’ve received any feedback, treasure it: it’s your road map. It will help you to fix this. Don’t delete it; don’t bin it; don’t ignore it for a year. Be brave, roll up your sleeves, take a big gulp of whisky (other sources of artificial courage are available!) and read that feedback. It will hurt.
  2. Believe your feedback. The marking process is very robust; there’s second marking, and third marking, and boards, and co-ordination. Your mark is not wrong; your mark has been decided by a team who all agree. Don’t waste time arguing with your feedback; accept it, and then start to think about it.
  3. See it as a challenge. The resubmission or resit process gives you the chance to prove what you can really do, and to address the specific problems which have been noted in your work. Take your anger over this fail, and channel it into purposeful action. If you want this year to mean something, you’re going to have to fight for it.
  4. Seek help. Don’t try to do this alone. Talk to your tutor; use the discussion forums; find other people who are in the same situation. It may be the case that going your own way is what got you into this pickle; so swallow your pride and ask somebody for advice. People fail all the time, even highly talented people (did I mention it happened to me?!), so nobody will be shocked.
  5. Be very practical. You failed this assessment because you were doing something wrong. Find out what it was; then fix it. Don’t send your kids to boarding school, or try to master new bibliography software, or buy a pile of books that you won’t have time to read; huge changes are not necessary. Focus on what you need to do, and just do that.




One final question, and this is the one I really want you to think about…

Do you think less of me because I failed a module?

No? You don’t think I’m stupid, or worthless, or doomed to be a failure forever? You don’t think that one failed module wipes out all the modules I passed before it, or all the work I’ve done since? Really?

Well, I don’t think less of you either.


Cora Beth Knowles.


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