So You’ve Tanked Midterms and You Don’t Know What to Do

Hello fellow exhausted engineering student! Hopefully you found some time to rest during the wonderful reading week. Unfortunately, many of you—first years especially—no doubt spent the week checking Learn for midterm marks and worrying.

Fear not! You are not alone! You are not the only one in your class who is worried, or thinks, or is absolutely 100% certain that they flunked the midterm, are the worst in the class, and should drop out of engineering because they don’t belong here. To put the lighthearted exaggeration aside for a moment, people get stressed and feel like they screwed up every year and every term, especially around Hell Week. They are, generally speaking, wrong.

The first thing to say about midterms is that, typically, they are not worth a tremendous amount of your mark. Coming from high school, it might be scary to see midterms worth 25 or even 35 percent. However, that percentage is not enough to dictate the outcome of the course. Typically, you can’t fail a course until the 50%+ end-of-term final. While that does, of course, put a lot of pressure on the final, at least you have a reason not to give up: you can absolutely turn this course around if you can understand the material for the final.

Now that you are, I hope, placated that the world is not ending (until the final) the question becomes: what should I do? Doing nothing different will probably result in you getting the same mark on the final as you got on the midterm, so you need to change something if you’re not happy with your mark. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is: “it depends”. It really does depend. Every single person had different needs. Every single person that did worse on their exam than they wanted did so for different reasons. Every single person responds differently to different study strategies. I believe that the proper study strategy is fundamental to academic success, and that the only person who has the time, ability, or need to figure out that strategy is you.

To start with, there are a multitude of services on campus that can help you with whatever problems you are having. If you don’t know what your problem is, they can help you discover that too. Below are just a couple of those resources:

  • Engineering First Year Office: they can help first years with study skills, academic advice, and—most importantly—the places to go for more help.
  • WEEF TAs: If you are in first year and even think they may be able to help, go see these fellow undergraduate students. They are specifically instructed to not ever look busy so that they are approachable and available, which is great. The downside is that they are super bored when no one is around so their top wish in the world is that someone would come talk to them.
  • Your Course TAs: Your Course TAs are there to help just as much as the WEEF TAs. They don’t get a kick out of writing big red circles on your reports; they want to help you get it right so they can save on red ink and, more importantly, help you learn about the field they’ve dedicated their lives to.
  • Your Professor: While it depends on the professor, they are typically very available and willing to help you. Between their office hours, after classes, and scheduling a special appointment, you should be able to find a time to meet with them. Just a side note (and one that also applies to the TAs too): it’s helpful to come with well-formed questions and a clear understanding of what you’re stuck on. It makes the process much smoother and easier, and it’s always nice to know that the student didn’t just give up immediately.
  • Student Success Office: A lot like the First Year office, but for all faculties and all years, and with even more resources. They offer similar study skill and academic advice, but also peer tutoring, success coaching, etc. Plus, just like the First Year Office, if they can’t help you then they know who can.

The second part of this is study skills. As mentioned above, there are a bunch of resources that can be used to help you learn study skills. The most important thing to remember, however, is that what works for one person will not work for others. If you’re stuck, I would recommend trying out a new strategy or two and see what seems most effective. Make your own strategy. Combine strategies. Use different strategies for different classes, depending on the course material, content, presentation method, and your aptitude for the course. With that being said, here is some inspiration in the form of strategies I have used or heard of others using:

  • Do every practice problem before the tutorial, then go to the tutorial to figure out your mistakes.
  • When the professor solves a problem in class, don’t copy them: race them to the finish and see if you get the right answer.
  • Do the first and last problem in a problem set to assess if you know the material or need to do more.
  • Rewrite all your notes every week on Friday night (bonus: you get concise, rewritten notes for studying and future reference).
  • Work at home, where you can stretch out and be comfortable.
  • Work in a computer lab, where you feel pressure to work and not goof off.
  • Set a regimented schedule for studying.
  • Set specific length breaks every hour or half hour.
  • Work until you get bored, take a walk around the building, then get back to work.
  • Accept that a particular quiz, assignment, or midterm is not worth studying intensely for, and develop a plan to do better on other assignments in that course instead.
  • Study by teaching a difficult concept to a friend who also doesn’t get it. Don’t have a friend in need of help? Teach your non-program friends, your high school friends, your parents, or even yourself in the mirror.

Again, all the ideas above are just that: ideas. I would encourage you to figure out what works for you and why. Remember, the time you take to do this now will pay major dividends in the form of better marks and more free time for the next half decade of your life.

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