Helping Four Types of Students Who “Don’t Do Well On Tests”: The Unprepared, the Improperly Prepared, the Panicking, and the Stuck

– Mark Mitchell

Ideally, students’ answers to in-class exam questions would show that students have learned from the class. Many students, however, have difficulty demonstrating this learning, even if they have learned it.

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Figure 1. Bystander Effect. Figure from, summarizing Latané and Darley, 1968

For example, suppose I ask my students whether one is more likely to get help on a busy highway or on a quiet country road. Before taking my class, most students would say that it would be easier to get help on the busy highway. However, as you can see in Figure 1, a student who understands and applies the Bystander Effect should understand that the correct answer is the country road. That student would realize that, on a busy highway, people assume someone else will help and drive on, but that, on a back road, people will feel it is their duty to help.

So, why might a student miss a question on this concept? I can think of at least four different reasons:

  1. Failing to learn the concept. The student doesn’t know or understand the Bystander Effect.
  2. Failing to apply the concept. The student knows about the Bystander effect, but can’t apply it to real life situations.
  3. Panicking. The student may know about the Bystander Effect, but doesn’t use his or her knowledge when responding to the test question because of panic. The student, like an athlete who has never performed in front a big crowd before and finds “the stage” too big, is preoccupied with feeling threatened by the situation – “I am going to embarrass myself!” – to such an extent that she or he is not able to devote the cognitive resources necessary to understand or respond to the question. On a short answer question, the student may draw a blank; on a multiple-choice question, the student may misinterpret the question, not read all the answer options, guess rather than think, or fail to see differences between related options.
  4. Choking. The student may know about the Bystander Effect, but doesn’t use that knowledge to answer the test question because the student chokes in one of three ways. First, like the quarterback who chokes by “having tunnel vision and locking on one receiver,” the student may focus on only one aspect of the problem or lock onto only one approach to solving the problem. Second, like the quarterback who chokes by “being too mechanical” (focusing on individual elements of what he is to do rather than using an integrated set of skills), the student may focus on isolated facts rather than applying recently learned concepts. Third, like the quarterback who reverts back to previous habits under pressure, the student may revert back to what the student “knew” before coming to college. Regardless of the specific way in which the student chokes, the key feature is that stress blinds the student to alternative approaches. Consequently, if the student starts with the wrong approach to the problem, the student may persist in trying to put a round peg into a square hole.

These ideas are also discussed in an article specifically written for students.

What Can You Do When Your Students Run into Problems on an Exam?

So, how do we help students who do poorly on exams? That may depend on the reason why they are doing poorly; therefore, our first job is to identify where they are running into problems.

1. Failure to learn concept. When students don’t know the material, they may need to be told to study – or taught how to study. Many students study very little, and few study using effective strategies (e.g., testing themselves frequently, studying without distractions). See Mitchell (2015).

Figure 2. Revision of Bloom's taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

Figure 2. Revision of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

2. Failure to apply concept. If students can’t apply the material, they may need to be told about Bloom’s taxonomy – and how to study so that they can do well on questions that go beyond memorizing definitions. See Figure 2. For example, some students use flashcards only to memorize definitions. There’s no problem with flashcards – when they are used well (see Mitchell, 2015, for suggestions). For some of these students, it may be helpful to test themselves over questions that require applying the material.

Sometimes, all you need to do with these students is ask them what could they have done differently. In other cases, you might have to be more directive. You may need to tell them that rather than memorizing a long, unorganized list of examples and definitions that they found boring and meaningless, they need to relate the information to themselves or to organize the information using concept maps.  The test should not be the first time they have thought about the material. You might also suggest that, just as a basketball team would never play a serious opponent without having scrimmaged a few times in practice, students should take practice tests. Specifically, they should take enough practice tests so that they

  • know the material,
  • know what strategies to use when they are not immediately recalling what they know, and
  • recognize which of the models and information learned in the course are relevant to which types of problems.

3. Panicking. If stress is interfering with students’ abilities to understand the question or think about what they know, we need to help them deal with that stress – students panicking to such a degree that they are focusing only on failing or on being the first person out of the room are not going to do well. Fortunately, there are a few easy things we can do to help students. For example, by suggesting that increased arousal leads to good performance rather than poor, we may be able to improve test performance (Jamieson, Mendes, & Nock, 2013). Similarly, it may be useful to have students label arousal as “excitement” rather than “nervousness.” An even simpler strategy is just to have students be well-prepared for the exam. Unfortunately, being well-prepared is easier said than done. Students who experience extreme panic during tests may avoid doing things – such as studying for the exam – that will remind them of the panic they will feel during the exam.

It may be that panic is more common than most professors realize. Although the most effective way of studying for a test seems to be self-testing, students avoid this strategy, preferring instead to use ineffective, but comforting, strategies such as re-reading their notes. Panic may also account for students engaging in less self-care and less studying during final exam week than other weeks (Gosling, 2008). This decreased self-care and studying may, in turn, account for students tending to do worse on final exams that are held toward the end of finals week (McClain, 2009).

Although not established by research, the following advice might be helpful with panicking students:

  • Encouraging students to focus less on grades and other extrinsic rewards and to focus more on intrinsic standards. Faculty could ask, for example, “Did you do your best to prepare for the test?”
  • Adopting a growth rather than a fixed mindset. Faculty could help students develop a “not yet” rather than a “never” feeling about having done poorly (Dweck, 2006). Faculty might ask students to consider what they could have done differently on the previous exam and how that can help them not panic on the next exam.
  • Developing a strategy for what to do when panicking. This strategy might involve freewriting, rewriting the question, writing why certain answers could not be correct, being sure to read all the options for multiple-choice questions, asking what key concepts included in this unit might relate to the question, answering  easier questions first, looking at other test questions for clues, or asking themselves why the professor asked that question.
  • Getting enough sleep. Most students do not get anywhere nearly enough sleep, and some students compound the problem by staying up late the night before an exam.
  • Recognizing the “failure,” although not catastrophizing about it. Students may have panicked and performed poorly on the exam, but even this nonpreferred outcome is not worth panicking over. They can recognize that this is only one grade in one course, and that they can learn from their mistakes to perform better next time.

4. Choking. When stress causes students to choke, they may not even know that they are having a problem. After all, they are answering the question (just the wrong one). Students who tend to misread questions or persevere in using the wrong strategy can benefit from advice that also is also helpful with students who panic:

  • Reading the question carefully, underlining key words such as “not,” “all,” and “except”
  • Scanning the test and then answering the easiest questions first
  • Asking, “What have I learned in this course that will help me answer this question?”
  • Asking, “Why would the professor like this answer?”
  • Returning to questions that were challenging, and
  • Getting enough sleep.
I do not do well on exams r

Figure 3. A strategy for identifying problems in taking tests.

Because tests and assignments will inevitably be stressful to many students – and to some students more than others – we’ve focused on helping students manage their stress. However, professors can play a role in how much stress an assignment creates merely by manipulating how many points they make a test or assignment worth. Professors may have to balance making the assignment or test worth enough that students take it seriously, on the one hand, and on the other, avoiding making the assignment so stressful that students choke or panic. The judgment about how much an assignment should be worth is more art than science, but science suggests that if the test or assignment is to be primarily a learning experience, a low stakes approach is probably best (Ariely, Gneezy, Loewenstein, & Mazar, 2009). If, on the other hand, the primary goal of the test is to have students show what they already know, a higher stakes approach is probably better (Ariely et al., 2009).

A Computer Analogy

Answering a test question correctly requires students to “call up” the right program on their “computer.” I have identified four situations in which students may fail to call up the right program and suggested remedies for each. See Figure 3.

  1. If students don’t have the program, they need to come to class and study effectively.
  2. If students have the program but don’t know when to call it up, they need to understand each key concept and practice applying it – often by quizzing themselves.
  3. If students could call up the program under optimal conditions, but panic prevents them from calling it up, they need to overlearn the concept and develop strategies for dealing with panic.
  4. If students could call up the right program, but stress causes them to persistently call up the wrong program, they need to use strategies that might cause them to look at the problem from different perspectives, such as looking at the question from the professor’s perspective and revisiting questions.


Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G., & Mazar, N. (2009). Large stakes and big mistakes. Review of Economic Studies, 76, 451-469.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Gosling, S. (2008). Snoop: What your stuff says about you. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses: The power of reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 51-56.

McClain, L. (1983). Students perform better on early final exams. Teaching of Psychology, 10, 226-227.

Mark L. Mitchell is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. He has written several books including Research design explained (now in its 8th edition), Writing for psychology (in its 4th edition), and Lifespan development: A topical approach. He can be contacted at

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One Response to Helping Four Types of Students Who “Don’t Do Well On Tests”: The Unprepared, the Improperly Prepared, the Panicking, and the Stuck

  1. Pingback: A Letter to My Advisees: Let’s Make This a Good Semester! | Hand in Hand

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