I am a 2nd year PhD student in the area of digital communication networks. I am taking an information theory class and we had our midterm last week, which was open book, open notes. I did poorly on it--I got a 68, while the class average was a 90 with a standard deviation of 16. This class is the theoretical foundations of a lot of communication, so obviously I'd like to do well and understand the material. A 68 when the rest of the class did so well means that I'm not understanding essential aspects of the subject.

The grading scheme in this class is weird, in that the midterm score is thrown away if I do better on the final. So I have the chance to redeem myself on the final...problem is given that I actually did study for this exam, I don't know how to do better.

The subject matter is inherently difficult for me. I have all the prerequisites (which is just 1-2 probability classes, I have taken two), but I have always struggled with more theoretical math.

I always go to lecture and do the homework. The homeworks take a long time because they are hard for me. I do each of the problems on my own, and then on the day the assignment is due, I go over my answers with a friend who is also taking the course. For this exam we were provided with 3 practice exams. I spent as much of the weekend studying as I could. We had a homework due on Saturday that I spent all Saturday finishing, and then I studied all Sunday and most of Monday. I managed to complete one and a half practice exams in that time.

My current style of studying worked well for undergrad and master's courses, but clearly my methods are not working here. Arguably I could have started studying for the exam earlier, but I actually spent the week before the exam working hard on the aforementioned homework assignment (at the expense of my own research). I did well on that homework, and I assumed spending time understanding material from the homework would be beneficial for the exam. That did not turn out to be true.

Is it reasonable to try and dedicate more time to the class? My preparation for the exam was already at the expense of doing nearly no research that week. Has anyone had an experience where they did poorly on a class like this at first, but then managed to recover? How did you do it?

Finally, the poor grade has made me feel unmotivated and want to avoid working on the material, which is probably the exact opposite of what I need right now! Any advice on getting over this psychological aversion?

  • I suggested a more general title that I hope will help you get more attention and more answers. If you don't like it you can roll it back. Let me know if you need help doing that. Feb 23, 2018 at 13:54
  • I would prefer underprepared be removed from the title, as that implies that I don't already do the basics, like go to lecture, do practice exams, do the homework, work with friends, seek help when stuck, etc. Using a phrase like 'effectively' or 'more efficiently' would be good instead, because at this point it is more about my quality of study than the quantity. My goal is making the 20+hours a week I already spend more effective. Thank you for asking!
    – CAJ
    Feb 23, 2018 at 18:40

2 Answers 2


It's great that you have a study partner. What you could add is some regular visits to office hours (TA and instructor if there are both).

As for sacrificing research work at crunch times, this is something you should discuss with your research supervisor.

Edit (responding to comment)

Thoughts about how to benefit from visiting office hours:

  • Go over portions of the lecture notes you're not solid about.

  • You may have some gaps in your background knowledge and skills, which you can work on with one-on-one guidance.

  • You can bring a draft of your homework:

    • Check your reasoning. Your instructor or TA can point out places where you make a leap of faith in a proof, where you could consolidate some steps, or ask if you've considered such-and-so other approach, e.g. indirect proof.
    • Get unstuck on a problem.
    • Better understand the relationship between an example worked in class and the problem posed in the homework.
  • Get additional practice with certain key types of problems.

  • Learn tricks for working more quickly -- which can be extremely valuable in an exam setting.

  • Practice explaining a topic. At a key juncture your instructor/TA can ask you to be more precise if necessary. Getting feedback about which of your ideas are correct and well put in itself can help you gain more confidence.

  • Request a practice exam, and have it evaluated.

In short, in office hours you can receive tutoring at the source! (Always being sensitive to the instructor's or TA's need to balance your needs with those of the other students.)

  • I do go to office hours when I have a question on the homework or material that isn't answered by our class forum, which ends up being about once a week. But If I don't have a question, what would I do? There's about 6 hours of office hours a week, and I'm usually there for 15-20 minutes a week.
    – CAJ
    Feb 23, 2018 at 3:13
  • @CAJ - added some thoughts. Feb 23, 2018 at 13:52

Taking your account of the events at face value, it certainly sounds like you are making every attempt at performing well in the course. So, my suggested course of action for you:

A key first step is to get to the bottom of the mistakes you made on the exam. Have you done this?

The test was successful at exposing a deficiency in your approach to the course material, so the best way to adapt and do better in this particular course with this particular instructor is to understand your mistakes on the exam, and correct those, from simple mistakes to those that pertain to understanding a particular topic at a deeper level -- you want to really challenge your understanding of each mistake you made.

Moving forward, you'll have a better idea of the particular twists that your instructor is going for, and, given enough time to process those (while successfully balancing your research obligations, etc.), you may boost your exam performance.

Good luck.

  • I have browsed the solutions, but the exams haven't been handed back yet (scores were just posted online). Definitely planning to look it over though!
    – CAJ
    Feb 23, 2018 at 18:48

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