A Guide to Midterms: 3 Steps to Getting You Back on Track

Posted by Pat C. on 10/24/16 6:42 PM


As the weather turns cooler it can happen that college life is not all apple picking and pumpkin spice flavor. Around this time, especially if you are taking classes where the professor had to teach you some skills and content before it was fair to give you assignments or exams that tested your knowledge, you may be looking at some papers or exams upon which are inscribed grades that surprised you—and not in a good way. This is a very common experience. You are not alone, although it may feel that way. What to do? 

Step 1: Be real

Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. You have enough time to turn things around, but only if you act right away.  Sit down with a sheet of paper or an open computer document and answer these questions as honestly as you can:

1. Have you been attending class and been fully present?

This means not using your phone or going to websites on your computer, taking notes and following what is going on, and participating in class if that is part of how your professor runs the class.

2. Did you do all the required reading for the days it was due, “catch up” or look up as you went for the midterm/first assignment, or not actually get to all the reading?

  • If you did the reading when it was due, did you do it thoroughly, (taking notes on it for yourself, making sure you understood all of it, reading it more than once, asking questions in class about what you didn’t understand)? In college it is not enough to do the reading and then wait for your professor to tell you what it was about. That’s more of a high school way of structuring class. You have to put in a lot of work outside of class. See my earlier blog post here.
  • If you did not get to all the reading or if you did it in a rushed way, what were the reasons for that (ran out of time? didn’t realize it was assigned until the last minute? couldn’t get the readings/materials from the library or other place? don't have good internet access? having health or off-campus job problems?)
  • If you did the reading thoroughly and on time, did you understand it, or did you get to class and find yourself surprised? If you were surprised, were you able to understand it by the time class was over?

Step 2: Review

Second, sit down and review the paper or exam you have just received. This can be unpleasant but it has to be done. Read every comment and look at every red mark. Make sure that if your professor made a note to look at something in your textbook that you go look at it. Make sure you understand:

  • Why you were marked down for each mistake (if you spend some time and really can’t understand a particular comment, circle or highlight that markdown).
  • How the points worked so that your mistakes gave you the score you got.

Step 3: Make a change

Now get ready to make a change. Yes, change is hard. But who said college was easy?

If you have NOT been doing the reading thoroughly and on time figure out how you are going to change your schedule and habits to do that. Where are you losing time? Do you repeatedly underestimate the amount of time it takes to do the reading? Are you having a problem getting the readings, why? What social activities or student organizations might you need to put on hold for a little while in order to get back on track? Are you keeping your study time uninterrupted by other people and phone notifications? Write out a plan for the different days of your week and stick to it. For instance, if you put off printing readings because it is an extra trip to the library then realize you only have one day to do the reading when you finally go, make a plan to do that trip on the same day every week and print all the readings for the week.

If you HAVE been doing the reading thoroughly and on time, still not really understanding it, and class does not help you need to get some help, as quickly as possible. Many schools have resources you may not know about that can include tutors who are students who previously got high grades in the class, note-takers, and study groups for your class discipline. Go to your university’s website and look for an office of Student Success or Academic Advising. Sometimes this can be listed under the office of the Dean of Students. Student Life may also be a place to check. If you have been assigned an advisor, ask that person about it.


Check the syllabus and see when your professor’s office hours are. If you cannot go to those hours because you are in class or have work/childcare obligations (other reasons, such as not liking to get up early are not valid) email your professor and ask for an appointment. In this email, tell your professor what class you are in and state that you are concerned about your grade. Tell the professor your available times for the week (this is faster than having to take several email exchanges to make an appointment).  If you can go to office hours, send a note saying that you will be coming to office hours because you are concerned about your grade. Show up when you say you will. This is better than grabbing the professor after class or between classes. And do do the self-assessment and examination of the comments on the assignment first. The professor is not going to be particularly convinced that you are serious about your grades if you show up and have nothing to say except that you don’t like your grade. We professors have a thing we say to each other when students complain about a grade, but don’t really take responsibility: “You didn’t give your student a bad grade, s/he earned a bad grade.”

The most important thing to do in this appointment is to ask any questions you have about why you got the grade you did. Ask about any markdown you did not understand. Do not go to the professor’s office without having tried to understand as many markdowns as you could on your own. Why ask about the stuff you can figure out on your own? You learn less that way and it does not help the professor to help you if s/he doesn’t know exactly what it is that you don’t understand. 

If you have been reading thoroughly and on time, tell the professor what you have been doing to prepare for class and for assignments or exams, including the amount of time you spend. Bring your notebook to show him/her the kind of notes you take. Ask her/him what she recommends you do in order to get higher grades and do it.

If your self-assessment told you that you need to improve your study habits, own up to that. Tell your professor what you’ve realized about your habits and what you are planning to do to change them and ask him/her if there is anything else s/he recommends.

Step 4 (if an option): Revise

You may be offered a chance to revise your work. Not all professors do this and they may have good reasons. Unless I have figured revision into the class syllabus for everyone I generally don’t like to offer single students things the whole class isn’t getting. I have also seen cases where the time spent on revision causes the student to fall behind on the current work, setting up for another cycle of bad grades. However, let’s say that you have a chance to revise and resubmit, whether that is just for you or for the class as a whole. This is where it will be especially handy to understand what you did wrong and where your careful review of your graded work before you came to the office hours will pay off.

Do not make the mistake of trying to get the professor to tell you exactly what to do. Don’t say things like, “So if I just write this sentence, that’s what you want?” The point of a revision, from the professor’s perspective, is definitely not to mindlessly edit it by typing corrections. We also don’t like the implication that you aren’t interested in learning something but see the course as just following our silly orders.  We want you to learn the material you didn’t learn by doing a better job than you did the first time. Learn by doing. We expect you to use our comments and consult your textbooks or other materials and make a real change in the assignment. We expect substantive changes, not just cosmetic ones. If your way of doing a revision is to 1) type in the corrections the professor noted with regard to spelling or grammar 2) delete the parts that the professor marked as needing work without giving you the exact answer on how to do it 3) ignore the “big questions” the professor asks in the comments that might involve more research or changes to the structure, or a shift in approach well… don’t expect much in the way of raising your grade. A revision is supposed to be a lot of work--maybe even more work than writing the first version. Treat a revision with the seriousness you would treat a new assignment.

All of this can be frustrating and scary. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, work to set up the conditions for your own success. Don’t brood over what you didn’t do last week or make exaggerated promises about what you will do next week. Calm, reasonable planning that you follow every day of the week will do more for you than either of those things.

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Tags: study skills, college