Salute to Spouses Blog

We're excited to be blogging about the latest topics in military life. We want to keep you informed on topics such as current events, education, career advice, etc. Feel free to post comments or questions to any of our entries.
Redefining Failure – Grad School Style

By Amy Nielsen

Failure: /noun/ 1) lack of success, 2) the omission of expected or required action. (Google Dictionary)

So I did it.

Completed my first term as a Master’s candidate and, I failed a class. I failed organic chemistry. I was barely failing for the first third of the term. Then, miraculously, I was passing after I got really lucky on a quiz and scored high enough to just pop over the passing threshold. I gained confidence and kept up the miniscule margin of positive points I accumulated, until the final exam. Which, I flat out bombed.

I was fairly certain I would fail the final exam, but after my recent successes, I was tentatively hopeful I might eek out a pass. Even though we only had one chance at this exam, unlike the weekly quizzes which always had two chances, the professor allotted ample time to complete the exam. In fact that extra time is what did me in. Time always does.

This was an online final exam of 70 multiple choice questions, no essays, open book, no proctor. I am pretty certain even if you had never taken a single organic chemistry class in your life, in the four hours we were to complete the exam, given good google-fu and a bit of extrapolation, one could search for every answer and probably pass. I, however, let the clock run away with my brain. Again.

I spent several agonizing hours the night before I scheduled myself to take the test realizing that the time limit gave me exactly three minutes to answer each question. Not a lot of time at all. The week before, I had submitted my timed physiology exam with literally 22 seconds to spare, having posted only a rough outline for the last essay question. I still get a twist in my stomach when I remember seeing that number. Time is my nemesis.

We had a week between our last quiz and the due date for the exam. I took my time preparing to study. I had several obligations to meet both at home and for other classes. I needed a brain break after the final week push of information that all professors are culpable of. I wanted to start getting into the holiday spirit.

I scheduled myself to take the exam a full 24 hours before the due date and time. I have little enough confidence in technology and my track record with it when I am anxious and stressed to expect things to go wrong and I allow time to fix it. This term the error happened in another class, and for that I am thankful. If it had happened with this exam I would have just tossed my hands in the air and given up on the spot.

I spent the morning of my exam day gathering my materials. Thankfully my professor is not a jerk, he just teaches in a style I have great difficulty learning from. To his credit, his exam prep tools and notes were exceptionally helpful and without them I would have failed even more catastrophically. I then proceeded to procrastinate my way through a lingering lunch.

When I did finally sit down at this very keyboard to answer 70 simple multiple choice questions, I was ready to throw up and run away to Mars.

The stinging experience of my physiology exam still smarting on my conscious, I set both the kitchen timer and my phone stop watch to count down in sync. That’s when my brain started running away with me. I couldn’t help but keep repeating the math to calculate 70 questions into four hours. This might seem like a simple mantra like problem for some, but for me it is a lengthy engrossing task – I have dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. Math is especially hard, yet somehow, my brain turns to math problems in times of anxiety – especially when time is involved. So while I am trying to focus and concentrate on how to name the squiggle drawing on the page, I keep hearing the answer three minutes in the back of my mind. Three minutes.

Are you looking that up fast enough? Did I spend too much time on that answer? Oh, that one was easy to find. Wait, that was too easy, look it up again. Ugh, too much time, it was right. Moving on.

I did this until I reached question 70 and looked up at the timer and saw it was only two and a half hours into the exam. I still had plenty of time to go back and recheck the answers. But how much time could I spend on each answer this time around.

And off to the races my brain went with its jockey time.

Which is when I made a choice. I stopped. I listened to what I was doing. I felt how much tighter my stomach was getting as I calculated again and again. I decided in a split second that while there was a remote possibility I could squeeze out a pass for this class if I pushed hard and long – to the end of that allotted time – I could maybe pass this exam. But Lordy, another hour and a half of that jockey on my back, driving me to clench my hands so hard typing they cramped.


And in the next instant I had my answer. I had failed.

Not only was the exam grade calculated instantly, the course grade was as well as all other assignments for the term were graded and posted.

I failed by exactly 1.02 points. But a fail is still a fail.

The well of emotion began to ebb and I realized I was not angry. I was not frustrated. I was not even too ruffled, apart from the frazzling I took from the two and a half hours of exam panic. I was in fact almost at peace.

What I had come to realize was that this class was not about learning and passing organic chemistry, it was about learning to be a competent, confident, applied student. While I may have failed organic chemistry the first time, and in that I join a very large club so I don’t really feel a failure, I succeeded in learning how to be a better student and by extension a better teacher.

Redefining a failure, seeing the moral in the lesson is as much a part of a good Master’s program as is passing foundation curriculum.


For Military Spouses
Apply for the Salute to Spouses scholarship today and begin your education! You’ll be on the way to your dream career.

Salute to Spouses Scholarship Recipients