What to do if the average of the 1st midterm is like 35%? Should I repeat the exam? should I ask them to redo the problems in which most of them did poorly in the exam and average the old score and the new score? Other suggestions?

(The level of the exam is not different from past exams, where the average was around 60%. Same learning outcomes, same everything as past semesters. The only difference I made this semester was to break each question into sub questions, each of which will target certain concept in the main question. Students usually have the habit of asking for partial credits for writing relevant equations without knowing how to use them properly. I made that change to see how clear they understand things and to make grading scheme less ambiguous. I have already trained them on similar problems and concept questions in class, but it seems that they did not take it seriously or they are not used to that, I am not sure)

An Update: I regraded some papers using the same way I graded papers in past semesters (just by looking at the overall solution of each question) and the average became slightly higher (~40)

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    The first thing you need to know is why they did so poorly. If you do not know that, any change might well make things worse.
    – earthling
    Oct 26, 2014 at 8:18
  • Was it so that they did poorly in the exam because of poor learning outcomes during the course or in spite of good learning outcomes? Oct 26, 2014 at 9:19
  • @earthling I edited the question.
    – Moa
    Oct 26, 2014 at 11:09
  • That helps. It would also help to know what percentage on the exam is passing. The US and UK, for example, can be quite different.
    – earthling
    Oct 26, 2014 at 12:57
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    @CarlWitthoft : surely you mean "doing poorly" (smile). But more seriously, given that many users here will be non-native speakers of English, I personally try to focus on the content and not on the grammar, unless the grammar makes the content too difficult to discern. Oct 26, 2014 at 15:03

5 Answers 5


What I usually do, and this would also apply in this situation: I tell the students that if their performance improves significantly in the final exam, and if any of the remaining exams/quizes, I am willing to ignore the grade for the first midterm when I calculate their grades.

But they have to prove that the first midterm was an accident.

This usually motivates them to work harder for the remaining of the class, and for some students a poor first midterm is a good wake up call.

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    It's worth noting that this approach will be prohibited at many institutions, where (quite rightly) the lecturer will not be permitted to adjust the assessment schedule during semester.
    – sapi
    Oct 26, 2014 at 21:57
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    @sapi Yes, I was thinking about adding to my answer that one needs to check if the rules allow the instructor this freedom. The reason I didn't add it is because the OP said that he considers redoing the exam, or allowing the students rewrite the problems where they struggled. This implies that he has enough flexibility...
    – Nick S
    Oct 26, 2014 at 22:05

Just play a bit of devil's advocate here (actually, students' advocate.)

I feel it's unfair to say if a student just put down some relevant answers, then he/she is just trying to slide by. To lecturers all these appropriate answers are like a well organized wardrobe. We can immediately tell if the answer is spot on or is beating the surrounding bush. However, for students, their wardrobe is their whole dorm room. New information is being incorporated on a daily basis and students may not have enough time and experience in applying the information to make the organization happen before the exam date.

Just because the concept of "you should meticulously answer the questions" was demonstrated and stressed in class does not mean it can be successfully applied in exam because there are a lot more stress and a lot less sleep the night before in an exam condition.

Because the expectations are different in both entities, once you have delivered the exam back, I believe the immediate reaction from them will not be "I should pay more attention in class," but more like "this lecturer is a very unreasonable grader (or anything more profane/derogatory.)" A 35% average is not unheard of; a 35% average plus a group of eager students who want to make their final exam right is something I've definitely never heard of. They will hate you and the atmosphere in class will deteriorate.

All these are to say, if you're going to unleash this chaos, you must be 100% sure you don't bear any problem or fault. From all the related posts of yours, I couldn't help but wonder why this change (from granting partial credit to everything has to be right on or you'll get a zero?) To make sure there is at least some reliability, I'd suggest picking a few papers from the low, medium, and high tiers and give them to a couple colleagues with your new grading scheme and ask them to grade in their own privacy. Check with them and see if their scores are different and discuss why.

I also love the idea of @earthling about interviewing with some students or class representatives.

In future tests, I'd suggest instead of using the new strict marking scheme all across, use a separate system to denote questions that will be marked strictly (for instance, with a *** in front of the question or dedicate a subsection for them.) This is to allow you to phase into this new scheme slowly. The information you gain in the process will also help you refine your questions. Students will not take such a big blunt, and they will have a chance to see these questions as a challenge rather than a threat.

To conclude, I'd like to share this inspiring quote (which I unfortunately don't know to whom I should attribute):

Teach the students that you have, not the students that you want to have.

While I fully embrace the idea of teaching the students to be serious and meticulous, I'd still consider an overall positive learning environment takes priority. And if I have to relax my criteria somewhat, I will do that within reason. This 35% ordeal is an unfortunate event; I am really sorry that happens but can't help to also think that this is tainted with some overly zealous expectations, and I do hope you'll fine an optimal decision soon.

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    It is good to know that there are people who even care about these things. :)
    – 299792458
    Oct 26, 2014 at 14:26
  • I never said that my criteria for grading is strict, 1 or 0, all or nothing. The way I wrote the exam this time made me pinpoint their weaknesses. I give partial credits for the sub questions. I care about their leaning, and I try to keep a friendly atmosphere in the class. What I meant by not letting them slide by is being too easy with them as far as grading is concerned.
    – Moa
    Oct 26, 2014 at 14:34
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    @Moa, you don't need to defend against me, you'll have plenty of defense to do. :) From the question I could only guess the scheme has become stricter because the course has "same everything as past semesters" and "[t]he only difference [you] made this semester was to break each question into sub questions." From your case, I think you need peers' inputs to ensure the grading is reliable. I agree with your motive, but I don't like the 35% outcome, it'd be a classroom disaster. And these all are just my own opinion/experience. Oct 26, 2014 at 14:47
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    @Penguin_Knight I completely agree with everything you've written. I would add that my first thought was that by breaking up big questions into several smaller questions the earlier students might have had it easier: Maybe Moa was giving the benefit of the doubt before, but there is no doubt now because of the details now being produced. I know I've certainly assumed, in the past, that my students understand details not written simply because it was one (not the only) way to interpret what they did write. Either way, yes, it is difficult situation for all involved.
    – earthling
    Oct 26, 2014 at 14:56
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    I'm somewhat surprised by "Teach the students that you have, not the students that you want to have."; to my understanding, what is expected of someone pursuing higher education should not be adjusted to their capabilities, willingness or discipline. Having people pass courses certifies that they acquired a specific standard of knowledge and skills to a certain degree. If you don't have students who are up to that standard, the reasonable course of action is to not offer the class, not to let standards slip, no?
    – G. Bach
    Oct 26, 2014 at 20:31

If you are confident that the students did not take things seriously, then I believe you only have one option: Fail them and leave it at that. If you allow the students to "slide by" without putting in even the minimum effort then you will see even more of that in the future (and so will other teachers, until someone allows the students to fail).

Of course, you need to be sure of this. I would interview some of the stronger students and see what they thought the problem was.

As a point of personal experience, I had one student who failed a subject I teach (he took it from another teacher whom I replaced). When he retook the class, he got me. I failed him because he put in no work. He took the class a third time (second time from me) and I failed him again because, again, he put in no work. Then he took the class a third time and I failed him again. Finally, he did put in the work. What he produced was still quite weak but it was enough to justify a minimum passing grade. I am confident that he would have never learned the need to actually put in effort if I did not take a hard stand like this.

Now, your case is a bit different because you are talking about a whole class and not a single student. I also had a case like this where the students thought they could "outsmart" their teachers. I failed 50% of the class that semester. Some of those dropped out of school (not only because of their performance in my subject) and others re-took the subject. I actually thought the school would complain about me failing so many students but there was not one word (and years have passed since then).

Don't let them slack off but do make sure it is really them slacking and that the problem does not lie elsewhere. If they deserve a 35%, then give them a 35%.

  • There is no way I would let them to slide by.
    – Moa
    Oct 26, 2014 at 13:28
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    I meant to imply that letting them redo some problems is letting them slide by. That is, you would be letting them off the hook for their poor performance by allowing them to do it again. Of course, if there are other assessments coming up, then they don't need to fail, they just live with the results of not working hard enough for the first one (lower score for the module).
    – earthling
    Oct 26, 2014 at 13:58
  • I think you mean "flunk them," not "fail them." The latter implies the teacher did not do his job properly, not that he's going to give them all a failing grade. Oct 26, 2014 at 14:52
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    @CarlWitthoft I was referring to definition 4b here. I have never heard a university educator use flunk (in the US, UK, or Asia). I have many complaints about how English is developing, such as people using "till" meaning "until" but I try to go with the masses.
    – earthling
    Oct 26, 2014 at 15:05
  • OK, well, I'm just a grumpy old-timer (you know, get offa my lawn, etc) Oct 26, 2014 at 16:29

You have two issues:

  1. how to make sure that student's final marks in this course represent their true understanding of the material
  2. how to fix whatever has caused a generally low level of understanding so far in this course.

For the first one, I have once or twice given this speech:

Some of you feel that this year's midterm was [too hard, not enough time provided, unfairly weighted to one set of topics, held on a day you couldn't think properly] and does not represent your true knowledge in this course. If you think so too, then send me an email within the next week and I will replace your midterm mark with [your mark on the next midterm, your mark on the final exam] when calculating your overall mark in this course. You may not wait to make this decision until after you have written another test or seen your mark on another test. Tell me right now that's not me and the mark won't count.

Surprisingly, some people who failed the midterm do not take this offer. "What if I do even worse on the final?" they ask me. I tell them, "then you'll fail the course no matter how I calculate your mark," but they hold back anyway. People who take the offer usually do extraordinarily well on the final. I think they crank their studying up dramatically.

That stops all the "but I am going to lose my scholarship!" "My parents will disown me!" responses. They can set this mark aside if they need to. But you need to address the fact they haven't really learned the material, they are just scribbling down some equations they hope are related. This may mean extra tutorial hours, taking two or three times the length of the midterm to walk through solutions slowly and carefully, taking questions. It may mean offering practice questions so that they can see if they get it now. (Have them mark their own work with the textbook as a guide, to keep your workload manageable.)

Once they are actually learning the material, you won't feel bad about giving them a final mark that is not pulled down by their initial difficulties. And you'll have solved the underlying problem for both yourself and for them.


In my experience, when an entire class does that badly, it's almost always the professor's fault, although they will usually never admit it, not even when the faculty commission just gave them a rap on the knuckles for it.

In all my years as a student I came across only one such situation where it wasn't the professor's fault: the courses were planned unreasonably close together and the contact time (lectures, lab work, and so on) was greatly reduced compared to the previous year. One day the class realised that considering we would all fail some course anyway, we would be able to help out each other a lot better if we all failed the same course.

But most of the time an entire class does bad, the professor simply was an inept teacher. Other causes of situations like this have included: exam drawn up by a different professor than the one who taught the class, exam unreasonably hard compared to exercises, exam covered different subject matter than the lectures, lecturer tried to cram too much material in a short course, and bad comprehension due to bad study materials.

It is possible for a student to overcome these problems by self-study (I got through some of those massive failures unscathed myself) but only to some extent and not consistently so.

  • While this anecdote is interesting, it doesn't necessarily answer the question, especially from a professor's point of view. The exam is done, and the issue of the poor grade needs to be addressed with this in mind.
    – Compass
    Nov 4, 2014 at 15:48

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