Chapter 6: Learning & Studying

Evaluating Test Results


Organize and review your academic materials

  • Gather together all notebooks and academic materials from all the classes you’re taking this semester.
  • Make sure that the notes, handouts, and materials for each class are separated into whatever organizational system you’ve chosen to use this semester (spiral notebooks and folders, color-coding, 3-ring binders, et cetera) for each class.
  • Going one class at a time, look over all graded assignments that have been returned to you. Can you identify any patterns? Do any of the comments or marks strike you as particularly meaningful?
  • Extrapolate some advice you could give yourself for moving through the rest of the semester. As you read through the rest of this section below, add several more concrete action steps to that initial advice.
  • Be prepared to share with your peers.
Photo of a male student writing in a notebook.
However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. —Winston Churchill

Learning from Testing and Test Results[1]

As discussed in the last section, assessment results provide important data instructors and administrators can use to improve teaching and education, but it’s also important to note that testing benefits students too. Consider the following:[2]

  • You may learn more when you take a test than when you study for it or are just taught the material. For example, if you are asked to learn five formulas for a math test, you will likely remember the three formulas you are actually tested on better than the others.
  • When you are tested often it encourages you to study more and procrastinate less.
  • The more you retrieve information, as you do during a test, the more likely you are to retain it in the long run.
  • Taking a test helps your brain organize knowledge better, and that helps you retrieve the knowledge more efficiently.

In addition to measuring how much you know, testing can actually help you learn, and effectively using the results of a test (even when you don’t do very well) can also enhance your learning in valuable ways.

Learning from Mistakes

Two of the most important messages that students hear from teachers is “Don’t be afraid to fail” and “Learn from your mistakes.” The following TedEd talk explores these familiar ideas. The speaker, Diana Laufenberg, makes the case for why learning through experience, feeling empowered, and embracing failure are all so much more important to students than just going to school to get information. You can download a transcript of the video here.

At times we can be hard on ourselves, especially if we feel we could have done better. Learning from mistakes takes practice and reinforcement. As Diana Laufenberg pointed out in her Ted Talk, mistakes can be one of the most important events that happen in a classroom, because they tell you where you need to focus next.[3]

Two case studies

The idea of “learning from one’s mistakes” seems straightforward enough, but how is that actually possible? After all, who isn’t disappointed to get a low grade on a test, a quiz, a paper, or a project? We all want to do well. Consider the following college students evaluating their own performance:

  • I recently took a general biology exam and I was so certain that I got all questions right.  I really thought I’d get a 100 percent on the exam. Then I found out this morning that I got a 94 percent! What annoys me is that my mistakes were dumb. Why did I make dumb mistakes? The tests are timed and I don’t have much time to check my answers.[4]
  • I’m so mad at myself. I’ve tried everything, I come back to look at the answer after I’ve completed the rest of the test. I go over the answers carefully. It seems as though no matter what I do I can’t catch my mistakes. I just did the same thing on an accounting test. I missed one question because I didn’t notice the answer was “All of the above.” In math, I didn’t notice that I forgot to label the answers and lost a bunch of points. I have the same problem in another class.

What advice would you give to these students? Add to your advice after you finish reading this section, and be prepared to discuss that advice with your peers.

After you get over the disappointment of making a mistake in the first place, the next step is to try to identify why you made it. That’s the learning opportunity. Below are some tips for following up on and addressing a range of errors that students commonly make on exams and other assessments:

Tips for Test Follow-up[5]

I didn’t read the directions correctly. Read all directions slowly and carefully. Underline, circle, or highlight keywords, such as verbs, to affirm your clear understanding of what exactly you’re supposed to do.
I didn’t read the question properly. Sometimes the brain sees what it wants to see rather than what is actually written or presented. This can happen if you didn’t study the right material or if you wanted to answer a question that isn’t quite the question you are being asked. If you are in a high-pressure situation, mistakes can be all the more an issue. Read each question thoroughly, and then read it again. Again, underline or highlight keywords.
I was careless. Watch carefully for simple mistakes as you work each problem. Save time to review each problem step-by-step. Check again before you submit. Always check for the correct labels on math test answers.
I just didn’t understand. Go back to your study materials, textbook, or media and learn why you missed the problems. Talk with your instructor.
I knew the concept, but I didn’t apply it properly to the problem. When you are studying, practice predicting the type of problems that will be on the test. Ask in advance. Practice applying the skills rather than simply memorizing the correct answers.
I messed up on the last part of the test. This seems to be a recurring problem. If you find that you consistently miss more questions in a certain part of a test, use your remaining test time to review that part of the test first.
I didn’t complete the full problem. When you review your test before turning it in, review the last step of each problem first. When the last steps are checked, then you can do a review of the full test.
I changed a few test answers from the correct ones to incorrect ones. If you find this happening regularly, try not to second-guess yourself. You can write on your test “Don’t change answers.” Only change answers if you have double-checked and if you can prove to yourself that the changed answer is correct.
I got stuck on one problem and spent too much time on it. Set a time limit for each problem and then move on to the next one. Put a star next to it so you can review it at the end if there’s time available.
I have a tendency to rush through the easiest part of the test, and then I make silly errors. After finishing the test, review the easy problems first, and then review the harder problems. But do try to answer the easiest questions first; this way you accrue good points right away, which can increase your confidence. Answer trickier questions after the easier ones.
I had the correct answer on my scratch sheet, but I copied it wrong onto the test. Systematically compare your last problem step on scratch paper with the answer on the test. Place your scratch paper on top of the test paper, not off to the side.
I left some answers blank. It usually pays to write something rather than nothing. Insert minimal information or the first step. Something is generally better than nothing.
I studied the wrong type of material. Participating in a study group can help keep individuals on the right track. Start studying well in advance of an exam. Give yourself time to discover and focus.
I left the exam room a bit early. You may be tempted to leave the exam room as soon as you believe you are truly done, but force yourself to take a little more time to review your work. You may find areas that could use tweaking, perhaps even spelling or grammar errors. Patience pays off.
I was tired. Your body chemistry can help or hinder you during a test. Get a good night’s rest the night before an exam. Eat a solid breakfast in the morning. Avoid sugary items because they can cause your blood sugar to drop and make you sleepy or foggy brained. Some students meditate beforehand to clear and focus the mind and affirm an intention to do well.
I feel deflated by my grade. You can learn from any mistakes and do better next time. Study more, review mistakes, and be sure to congratulate yourself for getting through the exam. Identify one thing you are proud of and happy about.

Reflection and Further Study

Keep in mind this sage advice: “All too often, when students receive a graded exam, they focus on a single feature—the score they earned. Although this focus on ‘the grade’ is understandable, it can lead students to miss out on several learning opportunities that such an assessment can provide.” (Ambrose, et al, 2010) For additional guidance on what to do in the event of less than optimal performance, watch Dr. Stephen Chew’s video I Blew The Exam—Now What?

Chew emphasizes the following points:

What not to do:

  • Don’t panic
  • Don’t go into denial

What to do:

  • Examine how you prepared; be honest with yourself
  • Review the exam; compare errors with notes taken
  • Talk with your professor
  • Examine your study habits
  • Develop a plan

Helpful strategies to raise your grade:

  • Commit time and effort
  • Minimize distractions
  • Attend class
  • Set realistic goals
  • Don’t begin to slide
  • Don’t give away points

Don’t be the student who:

  • Keeps studying the same way, hoping to improve
  • Waits until the end of the term to ask for help
  • Skips class to focus on other classes
  • Falls further behind waiting to find time to catch up
  • Crams at the last minute
  • Doesn’t do assignments because they are small or late
  • Panics and gives up

If You Question Your Results

Often students feel they’ve received a lower grade than they deserve. This may be especially true for new students not yet used to the higher standards of college. While it can be disappointing to get a low grade, try not to be too hard on yourself or on the instructor. Take a good look at what happened on the test or paper and make sure you know what to do better next time.

If you genuinely believe you should have earned a higher grade, you can talk with your instructor. How you communicate in that conversation, however, is very important. Instructors are used to hearing students complain about grades, and they will likely patiently explain their standards for grading. In general, instructors seldom change grades. Still, it can still be worthwhile to talk with the instructor. You will gain from the experience even if your grade doesn’t change.

Here are guidelines for talking about a grade with an instructor:

  • Go over the requirements for the paper or test and the instructor’s comments. Be sure you actually have a reason to evaluate the grade beyond the fact you didn’t do well. Be prepared with specific points you want to discuss.
  • Make an appointment with your instructor. For face-to-face classes, avoid trying to talk about your concern before or after class.
  • Begin by politely explaining that you thought you did better on the assignment or test (not simply that you think you deserve a better grade) and that you’d like to go over it to better understand the result.
  • Allow the instructor to explain his or her comments on the assignment or grading of the test and show appreciation for the explanation. Raise any specific questions or make comments at this time. For example, you might say, “I really thought I was being clear here when I wrote . . .”
  • Use good listening skills. Whatever you do, don’t argue!
  • Ask what you can do to improve the grade, if possible. Can you rewrite the paper or do any extra-credit work to help make up for a test score? While you are showing that you would like to earn a higher grade in the course, also make it clear you’re willing to put in the effort and you want to learn more.
  • If there is no opportunity to improve on this specific project, ask the instructor for advice on what you might do on the next assignment or when preparing for the next test. You may be offered some individual help or receive good study advice, and your instructor will respect your willingness to make the effort.

Keep All Your Work

While it may be tempting to immediately throw away a test or paper once the professor returns it, students should keep all materials from all their courses until after they’ve received their official final grades. Those handouts, charts, readings, tests, and papers can provide valuable review materials for courses with cumulative final exams and important source material for those that require research papers or oral presentations.

Analyzing returned tests and papers can help students identify and correct patterns, thus ensuring they see better results in subsequent learning tasks. Finally, it can be very rewarding for students to look back at their work from earlier in the semester and reflect upon their increasing depth and breadth of knowledge and skills across a variety of disciplines. Using past work to inform future practice is a wise academic choice for all students.

Learn from returned tests

Visit Duquesne University’s website, Help Students to Learn from Returned Tests. It has exam wrappers, post-test surveys, and error-analysis exercises you can use to help you learn from returned exams and perform better on future tests. Identify and apply at least one of the strategies suggested. If you didn’t find an appropriate strategy, search online to locate alternate methods to help you learn from your last test.


  1. "Testing: How Much Is Too Much?" NPR. NPR. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  2. "Ten Benefits of Quizzes and Tests in Educational Practice." Getting Results. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  3. "Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes." Edutopia. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  4. "How to Avoid Making Stupid Mistakes on Exams?" Student Doctor Network. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  5. "10 Exam Mistakes That Lose Easy Marks and How to Avoid Them." Oxford Summer School 2016 with Oxford Royale Academy. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.


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