We fail exams because we attempted the exam and did not get the required grades necessary to pass. Really now? Yeah that is it. Seriously, were you expecting a more articulated discussion with scholarly or scientific explanations? Were you expecting a well categorized if not exhaustive list of non student and student factors that could be contributing to failing exams?

poster causes of failureHonestly, I had those in mind and more but after all is said and done, we fail because we did not pass. We failed to pass. 

Naturally, the causes for failing is another matter and the reasons are as diverse as individuals are different or even as common as individuals are similar. However, most reasons fall within not turning up at the exam, mentally and physically ready,  and turning up for the wrong exam. Whichever, we fail to pass and there are consequences.


Normally, achieving any goal, is a success and success is good. In short, failing is good if you were planning to fail but who plans to fail? Well, have you ever failed an exam? Did you plan to fail or it was simply “out of luck” happening to you? 

Well, lots of time we foolhardily plan to fail and when we are successful and get the failing grade, we are surprised, disappointed and even get depressed. Yet our actions can increase the chances of our failing and action speaks louder than words.

poster planning to fail

For example, when we are approaching exams and we are not prepared and ready, we are actually planning to fail.  If we can’t define the name of the subject that we  are studying, or not having the syllabus for the exam and following it, then we are planning to fail. Not going to classes nor getting the course material and procrastinating studying for exams, we are planning to fail. Not being able to understand what we know and being able to relate it to the examiner, we are planning to fail. Not liking a subject and yet neglecting it while hoping for the best with our fingers crossed, then we are planning to fail. 

In short anything we do that does not help to enhance our chances of passing the exam, is planning to fail and it is not good, unless failing is our goal. Bear in mind, if we fail to plan, we are planning to fail. 

poster bill gates failingOf course, at times, failing an exam might put us into a better position. For example, failing an exam might get us the chance to do a resit and get higher grades. Losing a battle (failing an exam) in order to win the war.

On a philosophical note, failing is good when it reshaped people’s life for the better. Failing can create a sense of pride and kindle an ardent desire to succeed against the odds. A kind of failing being “a blessing in disguise”. Failing in one area might lead us to our success or calling in another area.

Also, failing an exam might be good as some people enjoy failing. For these people, failing is success since failing gives them gratification. 

Nevertheless, failing can be terrible as it might affect our self confidence and sense of worth. Failing is also a waste of time and cost in terms of money, resources, sweat and tears. Some times we only have one try at an exam and failing is not an option. It’s now or never. No second chance so our career goals would get dashed; we would be denied job advancement and screened out from becoming a part of our aspiration group.

So whether failing an exam is good or bad can be relative but one thing is sure: exams exist.


Exams have been considered as useful tools to measure students’ knowledge, skill, and ability. Exams  also serve as a way to allocate certificates of merit; determine qualification for upgrading and standardized entry requirement for college and professional groups. A “kind of screening mechanism to separate the Crème de la crème from the ordinary”.  

poster einstein on learning

However, the reliance on exams as a measurement tool can be troublesome. Empirical evidence has shown that students may have learnt and teachers may have taught and yet students still perform poorly on an exam. 

Also,  should a single grade on an exam determine our “success”? In fact, many educators are now suggesting that alternatives to final exams, such as course work grades, are better indicators of students’ performance as students earn grades based upon their performance on a wider range of assessments methods and types and over time.

On the darker side, exams can be rigged, test papers compromised, and even used for personal gains by teachers and administrators. The recent Stanford University scandal surrounding entry to universities is a good example.

Yet, despite the drawbacks of exams, necessary evil or not, they have been around for centuries and will continue to be. As such, it’s important that when we are faced with exam situations , we are ready to tackle them with confidence and fun.


As mentioned above, there are many reasons or causes for failing exams. One way to understand the issue is to consider our failing of exams as the effects or symptoms of underlying causes or problems that existed leading up to the exam or even during the exam. 

fishbone diagram jpeg
Ishikawa or Fishbone model  representing causes for low performance on exams. To see a clearer image click here.   Ishikawa or Fishbone diagram- Exam Performance – WordFoodMusic . 

To stop failing exams we need to pay attention to these causes. It is not the failing of the exam that is the problem, it is the causes that are the problem.

These causes though common and varied are summarized using the Ishikawa or Fishbone Diagram as above. This Cause and Effect model classified the major causes for exam failure as: 1. the students’ learning, level of preparedness, resources, and home environment; 2. the teachers’ qualities and teaching methods; 3.  the school’s systems and structures;   4. the type of exam, conditions and time of day; 5. Family and friends support and 6. the government’s commitment to education. 

As can be seen, unfortunately, most of the fposter 4-study-motivation-hacksactors that affect exam performance are out side our control as students. Accordingly, students are primarily responsible for their success on exams as the odds are stacked up against them. The onus is on us to get high grades.       


To pass an exam, be sure to prepare as if 100% is the passing grade. As such, aim for the ultimate. Know your strengths and weaknesses then accentuate your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses. Help yourself  by identifying the causes that could affect your chances at success in exams.  Check to see if these factors are out of your control and what you can do about them in order to mitigate their negative impact. Honest answers are needed. To thyself be true. 

poster hard work beats

Basically, passing exams are the opposite of failing exams. Do plan to pass. Only do things that will improve your chances of passing. Treat your study time or the entire semester as an Exam prison sentence. Your “free”time is restricted by studying and you are allowed lesser privileges. The bright side is after the exam you will have time to do other types of fun and frolic. Wink. Wink.  W


Here are a few hints, tips and techniques that you could consider. They worked well for me.

  1.  TURN UP FOR THE EXAM. Be ready and be on time. Turn up in body and mind.
  2. HAVE FUN WHILE STUDYING. If you enjoy what you are doing, it is less work and more fun. Learn even while you are at fun with friends, spouse and family.  Get them involved.
  3. AIR. (ATTENTION. INTEREST. RESPECT).  Get and give lots of AIR. The more Attention is given, the more things open up. Put a little Interest with Attention and you might be surprised to see how things that were as clear as mud, quickly become as clear as crystal. Seal it up with Respect which is the energy that guides Attention and Interest. Give and get respect.
  4. MAKE YOUR PRIORITY YOUR PREROGATIVE AND YOUR PREROGATIVE YOUR PRIORITY. There are only 24 hours in the day and you should ensure that your exam is your priority and prerogative. Use up as much of the day doing them. Recall you are in Exam prison.
  5. ALWAYS READ ONE OR TWO CHAPTERS AHEAD OF YOUR TUTOR. When you read ahead of your teacher the material will be as clear as mud to you. That’s okay for it to be a muddle then. When you are in class and the teacher begins that topic it will become as clear as Pepsi or Coke. When you reread it again at home it will be as clear as cream soda.
  6. WORRY BEFORE THE TIME TO WORRY. There are three times to worry. Before the exam, during the exam and after the exam. The best time to worry is before the exams. If you worry before the exams, then during the exams or after the exams you won’t worry because you had already worried yourself.
  7. PROPER PREPARATION PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE. “Dance a yard before you dance abroad”. This cannot be over stated. Get all the study material available from the examination body and teachers. Study them smartly. Swot the facts and learn the principles. Try and summarize a chapter of say 20 pages on a topic to down to a page or two of notes in your own words. Learn the moves now, develop style later.poster no secret to success
  8. TO FULLY UNDERSTAND IT, YOU NEED TO SEE IT WORKING. Theory is good but seeing it work in practice is priceless. Practice. Practice. practice. Nothing beats practice and being ready. Study, study and then study again.
  9. THE MORE OF YOUR SENSES YOU USE WHEN STUDYING, THE MORE YOU LEARN. If you hear, say,  write, see and even taste the topics you are doing, you will learn more. So after hearing your lecturer talk about an exam topic, you should go read it and write down notes on the topic, and then tell your friend about it so the brain record it better. Next, go watch a YouTube video on the topic for further understanding. Reinforcement and repetition are learning’s best friends.
  10. GIGO. Garbage In Garbage Out. This computer term is applicable. In fact, what you put in is what you get out. Do a substantial amount of work and prepare for the exam as if it is two weeks earlier. Recall Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong, it normally goes wrong.
  11. ANY TOPIC OR SUBJECT YOU DON’T LIKE, LOVE IT MORE THAN THE REST. If you don’t like a particular topic on the exam, pay more attention to that topic. Go back to number 2. Give more AIR to weak or disliked topics .
  12. DO NOT PROMISE YOUR BRAIN TO SPEND AN ENTIRE WEEKEND STUDYING. JUST DO IT. Normally the ideal is not the real and something is going to prevent you from doing it. . Mark you, it’s a noble idea but it rarely works. The brain seems to find ways out of it and the following week you and your brain are at malice or in remorse. Instead of promising to do do it, on the weekend, just do daily study of even an hour, and on weekends you increase.
  13. STUDY NOW AND PRACTICE WEEKEND. If you study in little pockets of a 1/2 hr or a hour or two over a week, the brain works with you. It’s better to nibble away at a cake in small slices rather than try to swallow chunks of it at once.
  14. USE UP THE ART OF PATIENCE. Find something to do while you wait. If your beauty parlour appointment is delayed by a hour, use the time to study ONE topic on the exam instead of fuming mad at the hair dresser.
  15. SIX HONEST SERVING WO(MEN). In college we learnt the popular Rudyard Kipling rhyme: “I have 6 honest serving women, who taught me All I knew. There names are what, where when, how, why and who. You should know them all for every topic on the exam.poster planning to fail
  16. EXAM TECHNIQUES. It is important that you relax the week before exams and do a dress rehearsal. Always KNOW  key verbs such as list, explain, outline, discuss, pros and cons etc. If the exam ask to list or state, don’t waste time discussing and explaining. That is time wasting. Also, if the exam ask you to discuss please don’t just list or state. That is wasting grades.
  17. BE OBEDIENT. Do exactly as the exam paper instructed. Remember,  you now need to show the examiner that you know, in the time allowed which is the length of the exam.
  18. TURN UP FOR THE EXAM. A bit basic, but do make  sure you are at the right exam, at the right time and right place, physically and mentally.


To fail or not to fail, at times, is a personal decision. An exam requires, according to Peter Tosh, our “full-icipation instead of “part-icipation”. We should decide if we are up to the task. Simply put, failing an exam can be out of our league if  we give it our full attention, interest and respect (AIR and are prepared physically and mentally for it.

One way to be prepared is to know what causes exam failures. As seen some of these causes include our selves as students; our teachers; the school; our friends and family; and the type of exam. Unfortunately, most of the factors affecting our success at exams are outside of our control but we can influence our own destiny. As such we need to identify our strengths and weakness and take steps to accentuate the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses. Not over stressing it, but there is no short cut to high grades on exams: it is hard work. We need to put in if we want to get out.   The most painful part of failing exams, apart from the time and cost, is the fact that most times when we fail, we are the ones who had foolhardily planned to fail. Suffice to say turning up at the exam with proper preparation can ensure exam success and boot out exam failure.

Oh, by the way, most importantly, have fun.

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