5 Reasons Why Students Underperform in Exams


When exam marks come back lower than expected, many students take this personally.

And who can blame them? Education systems around the world use test scores as a shorthand to sort out the “smart” kids from the rest.

The truth is, though, that your child could be underperforming on exams for any number of reasons – and as a parent, you’re in a better position than anyone to address these problems.

Below, we’ve listed just a handful of things that could be negatively impacting your child’s performance come exam time.

They don’t have an exam strategy

Have you ever had your child bring back a surprisingly low exam score – but when you asked questions about the material, they knew it just fine?

If so, the problem may not be with how well they’ve learned the content, but instead with how well they can demonstrate that knowledge in an exam.

Many people don’t realize it, but taking an exam effectively requires a good strategy – yet strategies for exam-taking are almost never taught in schools.

In an exam with multiple sections, for instance, they may get bogged down in the first part when it’s the later sections that they’ve truly mastered.

By the end of the exam, though, they may have had to rush through material that they knew well just to finish on time.

If you, their teacher, or a tutor can work with your child to develop a solid exam-taking strategy, they’ll be in much better position to succeed.

They have poor studying techniques

We’re not meaning to come down on schools, but besides skimping on exam-taking strategies, schools also don’t tend to spend much time teaching studying techniques.

Frequently, classes will teach students content directly as well as letting them know what content students should study, and they’re fantastic at this overall.

But schools rarely show students how to study material effectively, and that’s a crucial skill for performing well on exams – and for life in general.

Often, students study in ways that are ineffective because they simply don’t know better.

One popular way to study is by reading through relevant chapters, highlighting key points, and writing notes on these parts – but this is a passive way to learn, and it doesn’t work very well.

Like with exam strategy, help your child develop more effective strategies for studying. Active learning techniques such as diagramming content and using flash cards for terminology work much better than usual methods, and your child’s grades should improve accordingly.

They don’t take notes effectively

It’s impossible to write down everything instructors say in the classroom, so naturally note-taking becomes a crucial skill for students to master.

Unfortunately, notes can go wrong for a myriad of reasons. Maybe your student’s handwriting is sloppy as they try to jot down everything they can, or maybe their notebooks are too disorganised to find anything useful come study time.

Poor notes can lead to a poorer understanding of the material relevant for your child’s upcoming exam, as they miss information or write things down incorrectly.

Notes should be complete enough that no information is missing, but not so length that everything has to be written down in a rushed, unreadable scrawl.

Ideally, notes should be first written down by hand – as that helps us learn material more effectively – but typing them up after school is a great way to correct any mistakes, since the content will still be fresh on your child’s mind.

Help your child keep logically organized, complete notes to give them the best material to refer to when they go to study.

They haven’t identified their weak points

Knowing how to study the right way comes down to more than just studying techniques.

A major part of effective studying is to identify what material your child needs to study the most.

If they’re spending the bulk of their time studying content that they already know well, the more challenging material will continue to give them trouble, resulting in lower test scores.

Your child may already have a sense of what content or subjects give them the most trouble in school, so ask them and encourage them to spend more time on that material.

Failing that, though, identifying places where your child lags behind is another reason why parent-teacher interviews are so important for your child’s education.

They can point you to trends in your child’s exam results – for instance, if they’ve recently started doing worse in a certain subject – and that information is critical for helping your child get back on track.

They’re spending more time procrastinating than studying

Do you know how much of your child’s study time is actually spent on studying? If their exam scores are coming back lower than expected, that amount might be less than you think.

Students can struggle to stay on task while studying for any number of reasons.

Maybe they don’t care for the subject they’re brushing up on, or they’re frustrated by their low scores and simply don’t feel like studying has made a difference.

As a parent, you can do a lot to help them focus better and for longer.

This doesn’t mean punishing them for getting distracted. Instead, help them identify what their distractions are and how to avoid them.

Rather than forcing them to stay chained to their desk for hours on end, be understanding of the fact that it’s hard to focus on something for long periods – encourage them to take breaks and work in smaller chunks of time or material.

Procrastination is a hard obstacle to overcome even for adults – if you can recognize that, you’re in a good position to relate to your child and help them overcome their mental block.


While it’s ultimately up to the student to sit for an exam and perform well, parents should be ready to help their child prepare however they can.

 Working with your child to develop exam-taking, note-taking, and studying strategies will give them the tools they need to do well – and put them back on a successful trajectory.


Isaac Church is a regular writer, football fan and enjoys reading blogs in his spare time.

PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.