Image courtesy of Ipenz at

Image courtesy of Ipenz at

Before I start this post, I want to explain that no one is assuming that mid-term failure will be so rampant in classes that the discussion below will be of an absolute necessity. However, because failed midterms tend to carry such important consequences – and often lead to dramatic moments in the classroom – it’s about time we addressed this thing head on: if a student fails your class midterm, they won’t be happy about it.


Understand that this isn’t necessarily because your/your supervisor’s midterm is too hard, nor is it necessarily because your students have not prepared themselves or studied properly. Midterm performance is complex to say the least, as is counseling those students that might not have performed all that well. Consider the following when discussing mid-term failure with your students:

Check Your Assumptions

If you take anything away from the talk about complexity above, you should realize that we only ever know part of the story when it comes to our students’ performance. Sitting down to talk with a distressed student often yields a lot more insight about the choices that were made – or not made – and the reasoning or factors that contributed to them. In short: don’t assume a student failed because they didn’t try, and don’t assume their failure is all your fault (or theirs, for that matter). It’s always smart to ask students to take 24 hours to reflect on their grades and the feedback they’ve received before discussing them with you, but if they are still upset or unsure about their performance after that period, invite them to share their concerns with you in a private place where you can both be open and honest with each other.

Understand Grades Are Emotional

One of my earliest gut reactions when I first started teaching was to get disappointed students to see that grades are ultimately just numbers. This didn’t mean that I didn’t try to show them that I empathized with their struggles, just that my ultimate goal was to get them to detach themselves from the feeling of failure associated with failing a class assignment. Don’t do what I did. Jamie O’Connor of Inside HigherEd has found that it is often more helpful and healthy to acknowledge the emotions that come with failing a midterm, and some of these can even be used for motivating students to improve.

Failing an Exam ≠ Failing as a Person

Related to the previous point, it’s important that students know that bombing your midterm does not mean they are a failure of a student – or worse yet, a failure of a human being. Even when counseling students about their options in the course moving forward, it’s important to remember Moira Peelo and Terry Wareham’s advice for Times Higher Education: “Do not make personal comments about a student’s capabilities, remember it is the exam performance which is below standard, not the person.” This comment goes both ways, too. It’s no help reminding a student who is otherwise performing well or is generally bright that they are “better than” a low mark. We all have off days. The only time it is necessary to bring up outside performance (i.e., how the student is performing in the class overall, their degree audit, their abilities, etc.) is when helping a student to determine their options moving forward.

Consult Your Students’ Options

Failure on a midterm almost never mathematically ensures failure in a course. It’s useful to keep that in mind when consulting students who are disappointed about their mid-term marks. However, these marks can make it difficult to achieve certain outcomes that the student may be looking for (i.e., an F on the midterm might mean it’s not possible to get an A in the course). When meeting with a disappointed student, engage students in productive reflection on the situation and start the discussion about what steps he/she thinks are necessary for improvement.

  • Encourage students disappointed with their mid-term grades to take a self-inventory. What do they think went wrong for this midterm? What are their study habits like? How did those habits fit with this particular test?
  • Help your student to determine (or redetermine) their goal for the course and the steps they would need to take to achieve it. Are they realistic?
  • Consider what opportunities might exist to help students persevere in your course. For instance, are students allowed to complete extra assignments for bonus marks? Would the supervisor be willing to alter the weight of future assignments to give this student a chance to improve their overall mark? Just be sure these extra measures are applied consistently and thoughtfully (Read: Have clear guidelines).
  • If it just isn’t possible for a student to achieve their course goal, what sorts of implications might this have on their degree? Invite students to speak with an academic advisor about their options for dropping the course, grade appeal, etc.

Connect Students With Support

I have always been of the mind that it’s never too late to turn a negative situation into a positive. If a student is struggling in your course, connect them with the S.T.E.P.S. program to improve their study skills, or a peer-tutoring service like the Writing Support Desk or the Science Learning Centres, or a mentorship program like Connect4Success.


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