University 103 Blog

Exams are Back: The Honeymoon is Over

It’s that time of year where many first-year students must face reality …  college actually might be a little harder than they thought.  The first 3-4 weeks were a glorious honey moon.  First-year students often believe - all is good, there’s no homework (or at least anything that must be turned in), and hanging with friends until 3 a.m. is perfectly acceptable.  Now, the first round of exams has or is beginning to hit and scores are being returned.    For many students, the first-year honeymoon just came or is coming to an abrupt halt. 

There are a number of factors at play here.  Many students lack crucial self-regulation skills (Deci and Ryan 1996).  In other words, many students no longer have their parent(s) or teacher(s) or coach(es) to tell them to do their reading and homework at night; and without that extrinsic motivation (and often reward) the work simply does not get done.   In addition, many students simply have not recognized that college requires different skills and habits to be successful.  This informal knowledge can significantly impact a student’s success (Sternberg et al. 2000).  A fine short and sweet summary of these factors can be found in Robert Sternberg’s article Essay on the Use of Research to Improve Student Retention in Inside Higher Ed, a copy of which is in your faculty handbook.

The first step in turning things around is recognizing there is a problem.    Many first-year students come from a high-school system where there are many low-risk, low-stakes quizzes and assignments that comprise their grade.  Students believe that if they pass all of their on-line quizzes they will pass the course, even if the on-line quizzes only make 5% of a course grade and the exams comprise 95% of the grade.  We, as first-year instructors, must disabuse them of this notion.  Sometimes, we simply need to remind students of the reality of the university system – in other words – formally teach them the necessary informal knowledge.  I have found some success by

  • Requiring students to bring all of their syllabi to class;
  • Having them review each syllabus to determine how their final grade is calculated;
  • Having them calculate their current grade in a class;
  • Suggesting (or dare I say even requiring) students to visit their professor during office hours to either confirm or deny their current grade and learn new ways to improve performance.

There is a secondary message (beyond time management and proper study skills) here that we must also relay to our students.  Just because a student fails the first exam does not mean that the student is forever destined for failure!  The important thing students must recognize is the ability to learn from mistakes.  Many students lack resilience or the belief that if they screw up they can rebound.  I always think of the quote from Thomas Edison about his research on the light bulb, “I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory.”  Self-efficacy is another crucial predictor of student success.  Angela Duckworth in the linked TED talk discusses the idea of “grit” and how grit may actually be a better predictor of success than IQ.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Need satisfaction and the self-regulation of learning. Learning & Individual Differences, 8(3), 165.

Sternberg, R.J. (2013).  Essay on the use of research to improve student retention.  Inside Higher Ed.