What is a Good Response to a Bad Midterm?

If you are already feeling insecure about your ability in a subject area, particularly a math-intensive one, a bad midterm result can feel like confirmation that you don’t have what it takes to succeed. The temptation to drop a course, with the goal of protecting your GPA, may be very strong, but there is a better response to a bad midterm – one that is more likely to result in academic and even career success over the longer term.

A midterm is a lot like the artificial horizon on the instrument panel of an aircraft.  A bad, or below average midterm result indicates that you are not flying level, that your nose is pointed down. It doesn’t mean that you are trapped in a death spiral and need to eject. It just means you need to make some adjustments to pull the nose up. 

Your first response to a bad midterm result should be a visit to your professor during office hours to review where you went wrong. If your mistakes were the result of a weak understanding of the material then this tells you that you need to spend more time studying or that you need to study more effectively. In math-intensive subjects this usually means doing more practice problems, but also reading the textbook before class, asking questions in class, attempting assignments well before they are due, and attending office hours and tutorials on a regular basis. If you ran out of time during the midterm, the above advice also holds true, particularly the practicing part. If your mistakes were careless ones, more a function of test anxiety than a lack of understanding, a counsellor may be able to help you with techniques for reducing stress, but you can also build your confidence by being extra-prepared (following the same advice as above).

The decision to drop a course is often based on emotion and it can be accompanied by a tremendous sense of relief. But that sense of relief is usually short-lived as the consequences of the decision begin to sink in. Dropping a course that is required for your degree program, especially if it is a prerequisite for another required course, can extend the length of your degree by as much as one full year. Dropping a math course, or a math-intensive course like computer programming, can severely limit your options for undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, as well as for summer research, coop and permanent jobs. Finally, dropping a course is likely to further undermine your confidence in your ability to succeed.

 Pilots are trained to ignore emotion when faced with the task of regaining control of an aircraft that has veered off course. They learn that feelings can steer them wrong with potentially catastrophic results. Instead, they are taught to focus on what the instruments are telling them and to make corrections based on that reality. When presented with a bad midterm result, think like a pilot, make some adjustments, and continue to move forward and up.

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