Why Students Underperform in Exams and How to Help Your Child Avoid Doing the Same

Nov 9, 2017NCEA, Study Tips

How many times has your child studied hard for exams only to be sorely disappointed by their results? Or walked into an exam with all the confidence in the world, and been completely thrown off guard upon opening the first page?

This is something we see time and time again in students – even the most dedicated studiers. It’s a result of the “illusion of learning”, and it’s a common reason students underperform in exams, despite having studied for months in advance.

The illusion of learning is a widespread phenomenon in which students incorrectly gauge their knowledge of a subject. The illusion of learning is usually no fault of the student’s dedication, but instead, ineffective study methods.

In order to perform to the best of their ability in exams, students need to practice deeper learning techniques that accurately and objectively measure their knowledge. They also need to avoid passive learning techniques that create a false sense of mastery. Below, we’ll outline a few techniques to help your child avoid illusions of learning:

Practice failure-first learning

Instead of revising and then testing themselves, encourage your child to test themselves and then revise. Chances are, the first few attempts they’ll get the answers wrong. But making mistakes in a no-risk situation can actually help the brain to register the flaw more powerfully, and remember what not to do next time.

Failure-first learning helps to build clear thought pathways to retrieve the right information more quickly. To do this, simply encourage your child to attempt an exam before they dive into their notes. Alternatively, draft a quiz with them which covers everything they might need to know about the exam. Assess what needs urgent attention, and recognise where they’re succeeding. Start study from there!

Engage with the “hard stuff”

For lots of students, studying consists of only engaging with the material they already know. Students tend to overlearn the concepts they’re already good at because it gives them a false sense of mastery.

Deliberate learning does the opposite. It involves working out what areas require improvement, and addressing the most challenging aspects of content accordingly. This also saves time – because the goal is mastering a concept rather than putting in x amount of hours.

Make sure that your child isn’t wasting time mindlessly highlighting or underlining things they already know. Instead, encourage them to direct their complete attention to areas that need improvement. (Another reason to test themselves first – then they’ll have an accurate estimation of what requires the most attention).


Another reason students flop in exams is because they only have a very shallow comprehension of the concept. Passive learning techniques like reading or highlighting notes can trick the mind into thinking it has ‘logged’ the information, when in reality, it hasn’t.

Self-explanation is an effective learning technique that forces the student to really prove their knowledge of a concept. It requires them to ask themselves questions such as “how?”, “so what?”, and “why?”.

Explaining how things work and why things happen allows the brain to process information more broadly and deeply. You can help your child study by asking them to explain a concept to you in detail, as though they are an expert on the subject. Follow up their explanation with open-ended questions such as “how?” and “why?”


By implementing the right techniques, students will have a much more accurate prediction of their level of readiness for exams. The earlier they get started on this, the quicker they’ll be able to recognise areas that require improvement, and work on them accordingly!

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