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What to do when you fail a subject?

What to do when you fail a subject?


Grades are not always an accurate record of academic ability. Nikki’s advice to anyone who fails a subject is to be kind to yourself and ask for help if you need it. There is no shame in failing.

Written by Nikki McGuinness

As I mentioned in my first blog published back in August, I am a mature age law student at Charles Sturt University.  Like many of my fellow law students, I work and study, and I also have caring responsibilities for a schizophrenic sibling. 

Whilst everyone hopes to achieve high marks in their assessments and receive awards for academic excellence, for some it will simply not be possible.  I am one of those people.  Contrary to popular belief, grades are not the ‘be all end all’ for someone wanting to practice law, a transcript is not an accurate reflection of a person’s knowledge, understanding and ability.

To be considered a fit and proper person to practice law, one must be committed to honesty and open candour and frankness irrespective self-interest and embarrassment.[1]  Having worked in the legal industry for 20 years, it has become second nature, and I tend to openly discuss issues which many people consider inappropriate or find it uncomfortable.  In fact, others have criticised me for ‘over-sharing’, particularly in respect to the difficulties I have faced throughout my studies and that is precisely why I do it.

They call it ‘over-sharing’, I call it altruism.  Someone must be the one to start the difficult conversations.  I am comfortable enough in my own skin to open myself up to criticism and adverse action, if it means that someone else may benefit from my choice to speak openly and honestly about matters that people find embarrassing or shameful.  I know what I am capable of as do many of my lecturers, so for me, I am not embarrassed about the fact that I have failed subjects – not just one, but many. 

The thought of failing a subject is terrifying for most if not all students.  As I mentioned earlier, it is not always due to a lack of academic ability that leads to students failing subjects.  For me, it is because I suffer from depression and panic disorder.  This reduces my ability to cope with high levels of stress so when my many responsibilities all blow up at once, which can happen at any time, I can get extremely overwhelmed, and it exacerbates my mental health issues. 

Grades are not always an accurate record of academic ability

If I knew then what I do now, I would never have failed those subjects and I would have graduated in June this year.  But hey, you live, you learn.  Thankfully, some wonderful staff members recognised that there was something going on and they stepped in to help get me back on track.  A Student Access Plan (SAP) was put in place making it easier for me to request extensions and provides for additional time to complete exams.  The SAP was a lifeline that I could use instead of avoidance which is most unhelpful and only serves to make my life even more difficult than it already is.  

We all know that exams cause most people anxiety.  For anyone unfamiliar with panic disorder, it is an anxiety disorder where a person experiences panic attacks and causes constant worry about having panic attacks.  It leads to avoidance of triggers which could be an activity or place – anything really.  For me, exams are a serious trigger.  Each session I go through a cycle of starting out well to ending in a deep depression.

The ‘lived experience’ movement

Until recently, I had never passed an exam.  This meant that to pass a subject, it was imperative I achieve HDs or Ds in earlier assessments which is extremely stressful.  I tend to hyperfocus and when this happens, I can become disengaged.  I will not seek extensions and I may fail a subject for failing to submit a final assessment.  It is not intentional – it is a common maladaptive form of coping and can easily find a student in breach of various university policies.

Thankfully, most of my lecturers have been extremely understanding.  However, not all lecturers can appreciate that the level of disadvantage I have experienced throughout the whole of my degree, far exceeds any disadvantage any fellow students in a subject may suffer if they were to grant a grade review or extension to submit after end of session.

My advice to anyone who fails a subject, learn from my mistakes.  Be kind to yourself and ask for help if you need it.  There is no shame in failing.  Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again.  Charles Sturt University provides access to various tools to assist students who need extra help to achieve their best, and it is free.  Students can access academic support services, workshops, and counselling.

Remember, it is ok not to be ok.

I hope by sharing my story with other students, it might give people the courage they need to reach out for support when it is needed.

If you or someone you know is struggling, please don’t hesitate to call:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636

1800 Respect on 1800 737 732

[1] Frugtniet v Board of Examiners [2002] VSC 140(per Pagone, J).

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