Why most students underperform in NCEA exams

Oct 15, 2018Careers and University, NCEA, Parent advice, Study Tips

NCEA exams are notoriously stressful.

In a perfect world, schools and teachers would have the funding to make sure all students were fully equipped to navigate NCEA exams on their own. They’d provide them with the knowledge, strategies and exam techniques to make sure that all students entered the exam with the best possible chance they had at success.

Unfortunately, in reality this is rarely the case. Being in the education sector for over 9 years, we know that students underperform in exams for a variety of reasons.


The catch is: most of these reasons have very little to do with “intelligence,” or even the level of effort the student put into studying. Moreover, they’re things that could be easily prevented with a little attention, support and mentorship from the right person.


The tragedy is that despite this, exam grades become a self-fulfilling prophecy. From the moment they enter high school, students are lead to believe their exam grades are indicative of how “smart” or hardworking they are. Students who struggle at school might get bad grades, and believe they’re doomed to fail for the rest of their lives. Even those with a great track record can get one bad result (for reasons beyond personal control) and have their confidence completely shattered.

However, the good news is that once you know what these issues are, you can take steps as a parent to troubleshoot them, and give your child the best shot possible at meeting their potential.

With a bit of compassion, strategy and wisdom – students can actually master the art of exams – like they might learn or practice for a new sport.

So here are the most common reasons students fail their exams, and what you can do to help your teenager beat them.


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1. They don’t have the right exam technique

Learning all the content for your exams is one thing. Having the strategies and techniques to get that information across in the exam is another.

This means students who are otherwise totally capable can get dismal grades in their exams – not because they did not understand the content – but because taking exams is a strategy-game, and no one gave them the tools to play it effectively. This will often leave students feeling debilitated for getting the grades they do, leading to resentment, apathy or insecurity (which can quickly bleed into other areas of their life too).


What this means is that students who are otherwise bright, switched-on and totally capable will get grades that in no way reflect their capability. Not because they did not understand the content. But because taking exams is a strategy-game, and no one showed them how to play it effectively.


For example, many students will enter the exam having studied for weeks in advance. However, when they get in the exam, they spend far too long on the Achieved questions, and reach the end of the hour having not even attempted the Merit or Excellence questions that will ultimately get them the good grades. Worse yet, (and more common than you would believe) they completely panic, and don’t answer enough questions to pass the exam at all. Had they had more time, or perhaps more accurately – a better strategy – they would have excelled.

One-on-one tuition with us is a great way to help your child overcome this barrier. Our tutors are highly trained in exam and revision technique, and time in each session leading up to exams is spent transferring these skills to their students. In Term Four, Inspiration Education will be:

  • providing students with a personalised study plan for exam success;
  • advice on eliminating exam-related anxiety;
  • supervised exam practice under exam conditions;
  • science-backed strategies for how best to sit the exam,
  • tips on how to prioritise their time and energy in the exam room; and
  • insider NCEA knowledge on the types of answers markers are looking for. 

When students are well-practiced, confident and unfazed by the actual act of sitting the exam – they can communicate their ideas more efficiently – and they’re more likely to get a grade that reflects this effort.


2. They’re studying wrong

While school is great at teaching students content – it often fails to give them the tools to engage with that content in ways that “stick”.

Students are taught what to study by way of content and class material, but very rarely taught how to actually do this.

Something we often ask our students in lessons for exams is “how would you usually go about learning this information on your own?” – and you’d be surprised at the amount of students who study in ways that are scientifically proven to be completely ineffective.

For example, many students think that highlighting, re-reading and copying out notes is a perfectly fine form of revision. In fact, it’s most students’ number one “go-to” strategy.

But science tells us that this is a terrible way to learn material, and that using active learning strategies – like flashcards, diagramming, and self-testing – is actually much more effective.

Our tutors undergo more than 25 hours of professional training annually, much of which is spent learning the basics of education psychology – specifically – how to teach students the best ways to learn. In tutoring sessions, our tutors show their students science-backed study techniques such as active retrieval, self-elaboration, distributed learning, the Pomodoro method and many more – that they can apply both during sessions and in their own time. These techniques make the learning process more efficient (students cover more material faster), more memorable (the information actually sticks) and most importantly more enjoyable (there is no more rewarding moment than when students realise that studying doesn’t actually have to be a painful and boring activity).

Another good way to ensure your child is studying effectively is by using one of the StudyTime Walkthrough Guides. These textbooks are designed to maximise engagement, practice science-backed study techniques, and help students to learn everything they need to for exactly one subject standard. Also, it’s the only guides on the market that directly correspond to current NCEA standards, and were written exclusively by NCEA students themselves.

A good tutor will help student learn subject material. A great one will help them develop the tools to take control of their learning. Getting your teen a good tutor is a great way to ensure that when they sit down to study, you can be sure they’re actually getting somewhere.


It’s the perfect time to get started.

Help your child get ahead in time for exams. Enquire today to secure a tutor.


3. They don’t believe in themselves 

Sometimes, all a student needs is someone to show them that – actually – they can do it.

Now, this might sound like a simple solution to a complex equation. You’re not going to pay money to have someone simply tell your teenager: “you can do it”, and expect their grades to suddenly soar.

But bear with me. Carol Dweck recently conducted some interesting research at Stanford University, which explored the two most common mindsets students have about learning.


“One is a fixed learning model. It says, ‘I have a certain amount of talent for this topic — say, chemistry or physics — and I’ll do well until I hit that limit. Past that, it’s too hard for me, and I’m not going to do well.’ The other mindset is a growth mindset. It says that learning involves using effective strategies, putting aside time to do the work, and engaging in the process, all of which help you gradually increase your capacity for a topic.”


Sadly, many students will never escape a fixed learning mindset. If a student has a bad track-record in Maths, for example, they’ll probably be convinced that they’re just “not a maths person”, and more suited to the arts or English-based subjects. When it comes to exams, this belief creates a strong aversion to studying the subjects that they struggle with the most – because it feels like no matter how much study is done, it won’t make a difference.


Part of the tutoring process is helping build a growth mindset in all our students. The first step towards doing so usually happens when students have that “eureka” moment – of finally understanding something they had previously thought impossible. This has been described by many of our tutors as the moment that “makes it all worth it.”


Getting tutoring in a subject that your teen usually struggles in is a great way to overcome a negative “fixed” mindset, or the confirmation bias that negatively impacts one’s learning.

Having a champion to show students that they can succeed in a subject creates a positive feedback loop that will continue to serve them long after school is over.


Why getting tutoring in Term Four is the most bang for your buck

With NCEA exams coming up soon, many parents feel as though it’s “too late” to sign-up for tutoring now, and will trust in the school alone to give their child the support they need to succeed in exams.

But getting tutoring right now is actually one of the greatest gifts you can give your teen. It’s a short-term investment that will provide a return both in exams and long after they’re over.


“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” – Albert Einstein


Working with a tutor through this period creates a positive momentum of its own. We give our students a personalised plan of attack for meeting their goals and staying on track for exams. We equip them with high impact study techniques to apply after the sessions are over. We personalise our lessons to target weak points, and provide peer mentorship to instil a strong sense of self-worth and potential in them, so that they walk through the exam doors confident, deliberate and driven to succeed.  

For struggling students…

One-on-one tutoring boosts confidence and gives students a new track record of success. Tutors will allow students to have autonomy in the lessons, which helps them to reclaim control over the course of their learning, and choose the intensity/frequency of the lessons to fit their needs.

In Term Four, tutoring is particularly crucial for giving students a space to find answers to any subject-related questions they have. It lets the student asks questions without fear of judgment from their peers, and gives tutors the opportunity to grasp concepts in a way that makes sense to them on a personal level.

Finally, it gives struggling students the priceless feeling of knowing that they’re capable. Just this affirmation – only possible through one-on-one attention, conversation and support – can be enough to transform a student from a disbeliever into a do-er.


For high-achieving students…

For students who are already succeeding, our tailored sessions fine-tune their exam technique and help them reach competitive new heights of achievement.

Tutors will establish specific goals with their students – whether it’s University, scholarship or endorsement related – and make sure that they are taking the most sustainable, efficient and effective routes of getting there. Students who are already doing well in the classroom are often neglected when it comes to critical feedback or getting work that actively supports/pushes their unique strengths. Tutoring gives the opportunity for such students to realise their full potential, and make sure they’re working towards meeting it everyday.

They’ll assign weekly workloads that push the student to meet new challenges, and encourage them to develop their aspirations, interests and passions in bold new directions.


In both cases, tutoring helps students to get back in touch with their “why” at school, and gives them that golden “eureka” moment that inspires them to keep trying, learning and improving.


Relying on school alone to support your child to exam success can be risky. Teachers have curriculums to follow, meaning most of their time is spent getting the content across the students, leaving no time for technique, routine or strategy. They often have large classrooms to manage, and so cannot ensure every student is on the same page as their peers, let alone confident in all areas of the subject matter. Finally, there’s no way that teachers can help each and every student make a study plan that will work for them, nor keep track of which students – if any – are actually sticking to it.


Tutoring is like an insurance policy for all these variables – so that when your teen enters the exam room, you know they’re as prepared as they can possibly be.


Then, you know that the exam is doing what it’s meant to be doing: testing students’ subject knowledge – so that they can prove themselves, show all of their learning throughout the year, and ultimately expand their horizons of their own potential.

Take the stress out of NCEA

We give students the personalised support and skills to succeed in their studies

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