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What to do if you fail your essay, assignment, exam or dissertation

One of the most difficult experiences for students in the UK is the receipt of a failing mark (usually anything marked 39 or below is a fail). It is important to understand that there are many reasons why this can happen to students, and there are usually several options to change the failing mark. Whether you fail an exam, coursework or even the dissertation itself, you have options available so it’s not necessarily the end of the world!

Common Reasons for Failure

Students fail elements of their degree for a number of reasons. The most common issues are not attending lectures, not keeping up with course reading, confusion or lack of understanding of course content, and personal problems that distract students.

How to Avoid Failure Before it Happens

With all of the problems noted above, students can usually avoid failing simply by taking pre-emptive action before the problem spirals out of control. There are several steps to take to ensure that small issues don’t become potential failures.

  • Talk to your Academic Tutor. This is a member of faculty assigned to you at the beginning of your degree programme, who you meet with regularly to discuss your progress. You can contact this person at any time and they can advise you on how to address any challenges you are facing.
  • Don’t wait until problems become large. It is always best to be aware that a small issue can quickly become a crisis if you neglect to address it. For example, if you are struggling to understand the course material one week, you will be unlikely to follow along as the course progresses. It is far better to consult with your lecturer early to avoid falling seriously behind later.
  • File for ‘Extenuating Circumstances’. Most UK universities understand that students will sometimes face unavoidable difficulties due to prolonged sickness, family problems or financial issues. If you experience one of these problems you can file an ‘Extenuating Circumstances’ form, which formally notifies the university about your problem. Your Academic Tutor will sign this form and together you will construct a plan to catch up on any missed coursework or exams, and you will possibly be granted extensions to normal coursework deadlines.

Re-Assessment Opportunities

If the worst happens and you do receive a failing mark, you have several options. First, you need to understand whether you have failed an element of a module, the entire module, or the dissertation.

Failed Module Element

If you’ve failed one piece of coursework or an exam, it may not be necessary to re-submit that element. If your marks for other module elements are high enough that your averaged course mark is 40 or above, you will pass the module overall regardless of the one failure. In other words, if you receive a mark of 35 on an essay that counts for 40% of your module mark, you can still pass the module if you receive an average mark of 45 on the remaining 60% of the module assessment. However, you may wish to re-submit anyway, in order to achieve a higher overall degree average. The opportunities to allow this vary among Universities, so check the regulations at your own institution.

Failed Module

If you fail an entire module you are usually required to re-sit the assessments, either by re-submitting the coursework or, in some cases, by resitting an exam. The form of the assessment will be decided according to the existing module guidelines, university regulations, and the decisions of the lecturer and board of examiners. The resulting mark is usually capped at a bare pass level, which is typically in the 40-50 range.

Failed Dissertation

If you fail a dissertation, you will usually be given an opportunity to re-submit it by an agreed-upon date. As with a module failure, the marks awarded for a re-submitted dissertation will usually be capped at a bare pass level. It is worth noting that a complete failure of a dissertation is rare at UK universities, and typically occurs only if a student has neglected to meet with their supervisor at regular intervals, or neglected to submit drafts in advance of the final submission.

A Note on Plagiarism

Although university regulations usually allow a student to re-sit exams and assessments, as described above, there are special procedures in place in cases of failure due to plagiarism. If a student is found to have copied work from another source or used the ideas of others without citing their sources appropriately, they may receive a failing mark. In serious cases the matter can be referred to a University Ethics Board, that will have the authority to take a range of measures against the student. In many cases, students found guilty of plagiarising will not be provided an opportunity to improve their marks, though they could potentially appeal the decision. In short, don’t do it!

Appeal Procedures

In addition to re-submitting assessment elements, you may have grounds appeal the marks awarded to you. This can happen if your university has neglected to take your Extenuating Circumstances into account, or if you were unfairly disadvantaged in any way. Each university has its own procedures for student academic appeals, and in general it requires a somewhat lengthy process. You must be certain to file the appropriate forms before the deadlines, and fully document the reasons you feel justified in appealing your marks. Your case will be considered by a university exam board, and if you are successful you will be offered options for re-sitting or re-submitting work without restrictions on the potential marks you can earn. Full details of your university’s appeal procedures will be given to you at the start of your degree programme.

While every student hopes to avoid failing, or even coming close to failing, sometimes the unthinkable does happen and a failing mark results. These situations can seem terribly disheartening for students, but it is important to remember that universities do offer second chances for genuinely honest and hard-working students!


University of Sheffield, 2013. Resubmission and Re-examination. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.

University of Warwick, 2012. Postgraduate Examinations. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.