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How do you cope with a low score in a test?

  1. Mar 30, 2010 #1
    Hi all,

    I am new here, so i am not sure if this is the right forum to post. If not, then feel free for any of the moderators to move it someplace else.

    Like the title itself suggests, up to this point i have always had decent scores in my math tests >90. However, in my second test in General Topology, i scored roughly ~80. This might sound silly, but i was very pissed off.

    I am making myself sound like all i care is a good score in the test, which is far away from the truth. The truth is i love math for it own sake, and i know that the ultimate goal is not to perform well in tests (this does not hurt at all by all means) but rather to develop a solid understanding of the subject matter (which in this case i feel like i have a pretty good grasp of it). However, while this poor performance has motivated me even more to study math, i cannot seem to fully free myself from the idea that i have pretty much failed the test.

    How do you guys cope with such situations?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 30, 2010 #2
    There are academic institutions where the highest marks in some math classes are even lower than your most recent test score.

    Your main goal of attending an academic institution is to obtain a degree. If your test score is good enough to pass the class and eventually obtain a degree, then I wouldn't worry about it. (Still continue studying hard though.)

    Remember that you will always have another opportunity in the future to study more of that particular subject area, and over your entire academic career you will likely write many other exams with a higher score. Not all exams necessarily show that you have a solid understanding of the subject matter, and not all exams are the same.

    To put things in perspective, calculate the percentage of the number of exams in your life that is represented by this single exam. I would estimate that the percentage is extremely low.

    In other words, there will be other exams and other opportunities for study. Don't sweat the small stuff.
  4. Mar 30, 2010 #3

    Char. Limit

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    Self-flagellation. It always seems to work.

    But seriously, the grade doesn't matter as much as the one question...

    "Did I understand the material and could I perform the material in a job situation?"

    If the answer is yes, you're good.
  5. Mar 31, 2010 #4
    I know exactly how you feel. At the beginning of this semester I received my first B on a math test in my life. Prior to that I'd always received full marks on pretty much every test, and it was a bit of a shock.

    Like you, I cared far more about learning the material than about test scores, but nevertheless I had this nagging feeling that the B was somehow going to hold me back. I was worried, for instance, that I may not be able to get a good letter of recommendation from this professor were I to one day need one.

    Here's how the story ended: I worked extra hard and made a perfect score on the midterm--he even posted my solutions to the course website--and I got an A on the next test after that. I've made full marks on all the problem sets. And one day after class he asked to speak to me in private. He offered to write me a letter of recommendation for a particular prestigious program that it turns out in a wild twist he is a part of.

    The lesson is a relieving one: it is absolutely okay that you made a B on a test!
  6. Mar 31, 2010 #5


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    I would just take it as a learning experience that tells you that you don't know all the answers. If you take one thing from it, it should be that you learned what you don't know and also that there is always going to be times when you don't know everything.

    When you get out into the real world, its not going to be a place where you just do all the work by yourself and get graded by your employer. You will be in a collaborative environment where people work together to solve problems and since you have demonstrated that you have an ability to offer something due to your high marks, with the combination of good team and people skills, you will be able to work with people to do things that are often more than you can do yourself.

    I'll agree it is a nice thing to look at your GPA at the end of your degree if you get say a 3.8 or a 4.0 but honestly if people had all the answers all the time, then QM and relativity would have been unified by now and nothing humans do would be a challenge, and I dare say if everything were easy we'd all be pretty depressed and unmotivated.
  7. Apr 1, 2010 #6
    College tests are scored very, very differently than high school tests. High school tests are set up so that the people at the top make near 100%. College tests are intentionally set up so that no one makes 100% and sometimes no one makes near 100%. I've been in tests where the top scores were 40/100, and people that made 30's were jumping for joy.

    The philosophy of testing is different, and part of the purpose of college testing is to make clear the point that you don't know anywhere near everything.

    You need to see what the class average is. It could be that you made 80 and happen to have the highest school in the class. If you are making 80 and everyone else has 95, then at that point it's to figure out what you can do to get your grades up.
  8. Apr 1, 2010 #7
    This is a pretty standard shock for people in college. Most people that end up in physics programs have always made near 100% and have been at the top of their class, and it's a bit of a shock to get a 35% and be near the bottom. Dealing with being the dumbest person in the room is part of your education, and if you are the smartest person in the room, then you probably should leave and find another room.

    Part of the reason college courses don't use 100%, if you are getting 100% in a course, then you probably should be taking a harder course.

    And if you are always making A's, something is wrong, and you really need more challenge.
  9. Apr 1, 2010 #8
    Yes, and if you aren't having a car accident at least once a month, you should change your driving route to a more challenging one. Also, if you aren't falling over when you walk, you should make sure you find some more challenging terrain. If you aren't getting fired from your job once in a while, then your boss is just too easy on you.

    Getting A's means you are learning the material. Why would I change to another course if I want to learn the material in that course? Yes, if you chose an easy option of two similar courses, then you are probably missing out, but many courses are the only one available in that subject.

    Getting used to occasional failure is a very important life skill, but designing courses where no-one in the class can master the material is just plain stupid.
  10. Apr 1, 2010 #9
    You don't drive to become a better driver (except at the beginning; I'm also assuming you're not a racecar driver, etc.). You drive because you want to get somewhere.

    On the other hand, you take a class because you want to expand your mastery of that particular subject. If you aren't challenged by the class, you really won't learn anything. If you're making 100% on every test with almost no effort, then clearly you're not really learning anything.

    It's tempting at this point to say that maybe you're just brilliant at the subject. And that may well be the case, but you're still not learning anything, brilliant or not.

    It's really not like that at all. The idea is to challenge you so that you actually learn, to kill off the delusion that you're actually mastering the material (because you really aren't), and to help you understand how much you don't understand. The last point is very important because you will never master everything there is to know about any decently large subject. You can, however, have at least a passing knowledge of the entire subject.

    Feynman once illustrated this quite nicely. The goal is that you learn to "triangulate". Instead of mastering everything in the whole subject, instead you first master the core ideas of the subject and the fundamental techniques of the subject. Then you gain a preliminary exposure to all areas of the subject. Now when you are working on a problem that requires the machinery of this subject, the core ideas of the subject may not be sufficient; you may need to call upon some other idea that you were once briefly acquainted with. Because you have been exposed to it, you can then triangulate in this sense: you start with a few core ideas of the subject and use the techniques of the subject to "triangulate" to another idea of the subject that you haven't mastered.

    If you never take a class that truly challenges you and exposes you to large chunks of material, you probably will not learn to triangulate, and you will thereby be nearly blind within the subject.

    Also, in such courses an A doesn't correspond to 95%. It could translate to 85% or something even lower. An A in such a course doesn't mean that you've mastered the material (and indeed an A can never truly mean that because you will never master a subject in just a semester); instead it means that you have a good command over the fundamental substances of the subject and you learned enough of the rest of subject that you can triangulate with effectiveness.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2010
  11. Apr 1, 2010 #10
    Because there is a lot of things to learn that the course doesn't teach. If you are getting F's, then this is bad since you are absorbing nothing, but if you are getting all A's, then it's too easy.

    You also have to get rid of this idea of spoon-feeding. It's not going to help you if you want to go into the sciences, and it certainly won't help you with life.

    I don't think so. Part of the purpose of the class is to teach you want you don't know. Also it makes the course more like life, where no one ever masters the material.
  12. Apr 1, 2010 #11
    Depending on how the class is set up, it can also encourage you to learn to collaborate with other members of the class to work on problem sets that may be a little too demanding conceptually for you to figure everything out on your own.
  13. Apr 1, 2010 #12
    And if you are brilliant at a topic, then chances are that getting A's will just leave you totally bored.

    Also the mechanism of teaching in high school is different than in college. In high school, it's generally, here is a problem, here is the cookbook way of solving the problem. In college physics, there usually is no cookbook, and you aren't going to learn anything useful by memorizing a series of steps.

    So the instructional mode in undergraduate physics is here is a problem, let's see what you do with it. This is to prepare you for graduate physics (and life) when you are dealing with problems that *no one* knows the answers to. Put together a financial regulatory system that prevents another economic crash. You are just not going to get a 100% on that test. Start a new business. No 100%'s there. Write a paper on what dark matter is. No 100% there.

    The thing that you have to realize is that the way that high schools structure tests is pretty artificial and it gets you to behave in ways that aren't that useful when you get out in the "real world" whether it's business or academia.
  14. Apr 1, 2010 #13
    Exactly. When I take a course, it is because I want to get somewhere.

    I did not say anything about "without effort" or "mastering the whole subject." I also didn't say "100% on every test" and I very much didn't say that everyone should get A's (spoon-feeding as in Twofish's comment). Yes it should be challenging, but the goal should be that a student CAN master the material (get an A) in that particular course, and if the course is designed well, that should be achievable with dedication, intelligence and effort (which not every student has). Of course, there is always more material to learn and a good student will know that.

    What if a student puts in a huge amount of effort, works through the challenges and gets A's on all their courses? Are they still in the wrong classes? There is still no reason why someone needs to get C's and B's just to show they are being "challenged." Getting an occasional B in a test or assignment is fine, as your example showed zpconn. It is great for extra motivation. But telling someone that they shouldn't be able to get an A in every course is pretty strange.

    I find this strange belief in academia that it is good for the soul to suffer - just a power game, I feel. As I said before, learning to cope with occasional failure is important, but permanently building into your educational system is severely backwards. Also, It is much easier to design an academic course that is too hard and then curve the grades. It takes huge effort to get the level of challenge just right so that a dedicated student can get an A without curving.

    If I want to train my employees in a complex task, I do not make the training so difficult that they cannot master the material I am teaching. I also do not set up a class where my staff have to compete with each other in order to pass the training. I don't care about their relative abilities in this context - I care about their absolute abilities. If someone is bleeding to death, I want staff who felt they mastered their basic first aid, not someone who is second-guessing themselves because I was busy showing them how much they didn't know about medicine. The same goes for heavy machinery operators, electricians, or tree fallers. And yes, falling trees or being an Ambulance attendant are just as messy and unpredictable as financial regulatory systems...
  15. Apr 1, 2010 #14
    Well, just to be clear, I don't agree that something's wrong just because you're getting A's. Something's amiss if you're getting all A's without any effort. If you work very hard, struggle, but end up with A's, then everything's working exactly as it should in my opinion.

    I was just responding to your comment about a class that is hard enough that one cannot master everything it covers. I think such classes can be so much more useful than classes that intentionally hold back and keep students in a protected bubble where they are only ever exposed to material they can, with just a bit of effort, understand and master completely.

    Also, my comments are really only applicable when you're studying something over a long period of time, say four years. When you've had four years of classes of the sort I described, you really will come out with a much more thorough raw ability in the subject than you would if you were sort of spoon-fed the whole way. If you're just taking a single course on a subject with no plans of ever taking a course in the subject again, then the situation is quite different--and I think your example of training your staff falls under this latter case, not the former.

    Finally, you don't necessarily have to suffer through the sort of course I described. If anything, there should be pleasure in the challenge. If there's not, then I really do believe something's amiss--either you really don't like the subject as much as you thought you did or the teacher's doing something wrong. If you have to be spoon-fed everything in order to enjoy a subject and if you can't find enjoyment in trying to understand recesses of the subject that you don't immediately understand, I would argue that you're really not that interested in it. At the same time, if the course is so hard that even people who love the material aren't enjoying it, the teacher's not striking the right balance.

    I think it's very difficult to effectively teach a class like this. Teaching people to "triangulate" is more like an art form. It's a lot more than just throwing hard problems at them, which anybody could do. It really consists of creating an orchestrated experience that spans the whole semester, an experience that continuously exposes students to well-chosen topics that will lie outside their comfort zones but won't be completely inaccessible. Timing is very important. It's not enough to just pick a hard textbook and assign the hardest problems. The goal isn't to make people feel lost in the subject; to the contrary, the goal is to help people know exactly where they are in the subject, and that requires knowing both what areas you're pretty good at and what areas you're not.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2010
  16. Apr 1, 2010 #15
    Fair enough. I think I see where you are coming from. I completely agree that courses without any challenge are not worth taking.
    Well said - getting the balance right is the most important thing. Challenge is very important; I wouldn't want to be in a bubble either. However, as a student, teacher, and manager, the most important thing I have found is preparation (maybe what you meant by 'timing'). Personally, I am happy to face the unknown if I have had the proper preparation. Throwing a student (or employee) at a large challenge without proper prep is not constructive. It happens sometimes nevertheless, but doing it purposefully is just wrong.
  17. Apr 1, 2010 #16
    Sometimes universities lie about what you need to know going into a course.

    For instance, I usually see the second semester of calculus listed as a corequisite for pchem, but to really understand the material you probably want three semesters of calculus (and maybe even one of differential equations) before you start.

    True story--it took me a couple of tries to pass pchem, and the difference was entirely in the math I learned. (Same course, same instructor--knowing the maths involved, I only had to learn 4 equations for the first test...before I knew the math I had to attempt memorizing 37 equations. )
  18. Apr 1, 2010 #17
    All non maths courses that still uses maths out there have too little maths as prerequisites according to that definition.
  19. Apr 1, 2010 #18
    I am glad that my post initiated such a rich and colorful discussion. There are many things discussed here, that will be of help to me! I thank each and everyone of you for taking the time to share your experiences and thoughts with me.

    Thanks again!
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