Why Do Intelligent Students Fail Examinations?

Michael Oghenenyoreme Julius
Department of Vocational and Technology Education,

Faculty of Education,
Niger Delta University,
Wilberforce Island,
Bayelsa State.
March, 2020

In the school community, there are various issues that militates against students’ performance. Even intelligent students are not left out. Students whom have been hitherto perceived as intelligent have failed examinations. This has kept educators and students peers wondering as to why a particular student would fail a course. Therefore, this paper on “why do intelligent students fail examinations” pries into the factors responsible for the failure of intelligent students. Issues such as financial stress, emotional stress, illness/medical issues, depression, etc were looked into. It was therefore, suggested amongst others that parents should understand that education cannot fare well when there is lack of funds. Hence, if parents/sponsors must expect good performance, there must also be corresponding funding.
Keywords: Intelligent, Students, Fail, Examination, Complexity Theory, Finance, Depression, Over-Confidence
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Michael Oghenenyoreme, J.

Michael Oghenenyoreme, J.

Vocational/Business Educator

One thing that beats the imagination of most students is why their colleagues whom they all know to be very intelligent fail examinations or perhaps, perform poorly or less than expectation. Well, all fingers has never been equal neither can everyday be Christmas days. And so it goes, students who have been performing at their very best have at other times recorded very poor test scores.

The reason for this is multivariate and multifaceted. That is, there are so many reasons within the students and from outside the students. These factors affecting intelligent students’ examination performance borders on things which the student can control and those he/she has no control over. This publication focuses on all the variations in reasons why even the intelligent students fail examinations or perform very poorly sometimes.

 Instances of Intelligent Students Failing Examinations

Over the years, perceived intelligent students have been victims of poor performance. It is a normal logic that those who are proven to be intelligent will perform well during examinations. But the reverse has been the case in many instances. Medical students writing professional MBBS examinations have been the worst hit over time. The Niger Delta University for instance accepts 45 for pass mark for all courses while for medical students, pass mark is 50. Not many students, even the intelligent ones, has been able to meet up with the medical pass mark.

There has been several reports and side talks about intelligent students failing MBBS professional examinations amongst others. For the MBBS, colleagues of students who failed has complained bitterly of the authenticity of the examination and scoring process as less intelligent students would pass but students with higher Intelligence Quotient (IQ) failing. This has kept students murmuring and baffled across times.

From A Theoretical Perspective
Complexity Theory

To properly understand the interplay between the environment and the students’ operations, the complexity theory has been adopted to underpin the study. Complexity theory which has been traced to Stuart Kauffman as one of its earliest proponents (https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/management/Bun-Comp/Complexity-Theory.html) is a theory of many unintended systems that comes together to influence the behaviour of patterns. Stewart (1991), Battram (1999) and Morrison (2002) opined that complexity theory is a theory of change, evolution and adaptation, often in the interests of survival, and often through a combination of cooperation and competition. Youngblood (1997), Cilliers (1998) and Wheatley (1999) noted that complexity theory applies to relations within interconnected networks which are the order of the day. In complexity theory, an organism, however defined, senses and responds to its environment, thereby changing its environment, which changes the organism again, so that the organism reacts to, and thereby – proactively – changes, its environment. The process, in iterating itself, produces dynamic and continuous change recursively (Stewart, 1991). There is, thus, a dynamic relationship between the organism and its environment; they change each other (Battram, 1999).

In this paper, the various factors discussed are the defining factors that come the way of the student to which he/she responds to. The complexity theory is thus a befitting theory in explaining the technicalities attached to why even intelligent students fail. This is because despite being intelligent, many other factors can play out that define how they will ultimately perform. Unfortunately, many of these factors are beyond the control of the students.

Endless Possibilities for Failure

Various issues and happenings can make an intelligent student fail examinations or perform below expectation. The list are endless but to be properly guided, let us take a look at the major ones. One, a few or many of the under-discussed factors may affect students’ examination performance.

1. Financial Stress: These days, education has become very costly. School fees have skyrocketed above the poor man’s means. Hence, many students grapple with academic demands. Many students in school these days are just there for the sake of sightseeing, or so to say. Many has not paid school fees and done all necessary registrations. As if that is not enough, feeding, accommodation, etc. are pressing and choking students. These can take students off balance and when these occur close to examination, your guess is as good as mine.

2. Emotional Stress: Emotional stress is one of the most dangerous factors eating students up. It is dangerous because it is sometimes difficult to identify most students suffering from emotional stress because some look happy, but deep down, things are going very rough. Sometimes, it can be as a result of bad relationships. The student may be in love with someone who just broke his/her heart. Now, it is difficult to let go and examinations are nigh. Some even take to alcohol amongst other depressants to mellow the effects of their ordeal on them. At this point, it may be difficult to perform optimally.

3. Illness/Medical Issues: A Recent issue in the Niger Delta University MBBS professional examinations revealed the negative effects of poor health on students’ test performance. The parent complained that the student was ill and was rushed to the hospital a day before the examination commenced. The student was taken from the hospital to the examination hall in drip to write the examination. The results were released and the student failed the MBBS examination. The parent was worried and was making all necessary contacts to enable the ward resit for the examination as she claimed her daughter has not failed before. Illness can be deteriorating most times and its effects can affect students’ performance extensively.

4. Political Interference/Man-Know-Man: The effect of political interference in the academic community has been very notable and this has been reflected in many of my previous publications directed at university education admission seekers. If for example, like the professional areas, only 50 students are needed by a professional body for indexing, there MAY be a lot of manipulations due to interests to downplay on many good performers. If however, a dull student is related or a direct student of a known political figure, there may be this pressure on a university administrators to allow the dull student pass at the expense of the bright ones. We have always used the phrase, “money answereth all things”, but the extent to which it does, many has not really grasp it. Indeed, money and influence can do a lot of things to the detriment of those with higher IQ. This is also one reason responsible why Jambites with very high scores do not get highly sought after programmes, whereas, lower scores may be admitted.

5. Depression: Over the years, many students had committed suicide because of depression. This is very unfortunate. The causes of depression are many and could also be caused by the factors listed above. When depression sets in, it may be difficult to think right let alone focus on their studies. When this happens close to an examination period, of course, the expected can happen.

6. Expectation Gap: It may surprise you to know that sometimes, those we think are intelligent may not really be so intelligent as we thought. Maybe, who knows, the expectations only happen in our thoughts and so, when they perform below expectation, we may begin to wonder. Of course, the examination may have just revealed their real capacity.

7. Over-Expectation: Many parents have been very anxious about their student’s welfare. They pay so much to get what they want. They make all necessary provisions to ensure the ward is very comfortable in school. And so, they believe that the student, after providing all necessary aid, will do well. If things go the opposite, such parents may begin to feel disappointed. However, it is not true that the child failed, it may just be that the expectation was too high. The result of these disappointments has been very disastrous in many instances. A Niger Delta University Student even have to commit suicide by Jumping in the Amassoma river because of pressure from the parent.

8. Victimization: Of course, the issue of victimization in academic communities plays of very pompously when matters of test scores are involved. For the purpose of being careful, I will be limited in this area. A student can be victimized because of various issues. Firstly, sex-for-grade can result in victimization if the student refused such offer. A student can also be victimized in many universities if they fail to buy a specified textbook. Additionally, a fracas with a teacher can also bring about victimization. Intelligent persons are not often humble students and little action from some of them can be translated as pride and could easily make things go wrong. If a student is victimized, how can he/she even pass an examination or at least, perform well?

9. Involvement in Time-Wasting Social Activities: Intelligent students are very good decision makers and wise time users. But we cannot totally rule out the fact that personalities and times differs. If within the examination period, such student is grossly involved in many social activities, it could affect his/her time left to prepare for an examination, thereby leading to failure.

10. Over Confidence: Intelligence is a gift package that sometimes comes with pride. Some that are very intelligent often bask on their capacity and believe they know it all. This may result in late preparation as the boss knows what he is doing. Before you take note, someone has slipped. So, he has become humble next time. In many instances, over-confidence has resulted in writing off-point and scoring very low.


Based on the aforementioned challenges, the following suggestions are put forward to help students who find themselves in similar situations:

1. Parents should understand that education cannot fare well when there is lack of funds. Hence, if parents/sponsors must expect good performance, there must also be corresponding funding. Both go pari-pasu.

2. Various issues can cause students to become emotionally imbalance. When such happens, endeavour to talk to friends, colleagues or in worse cases, visit the career and human development centre of your school.

3. When you find yourself in a critical health condition prior to your examination, you do not need to write such examination without letting your lecturer who takes the course know about your condition, especially if it is a crucial professional examination. Your lecturer is expected to guide you through, if you are to write the little you can while he/she takes it from there or you go back home after fulfilling all requirements, your lecturer is in the best position to let you know that.

4. If you feel because of various influences in your school, you do not have the required marks, you can consult the authority of your school for possible consideration if your score does not in any way reflect your real capacity.

5. If you write an exam in ill-health and your result came out poor, whereas, you have the confidence for a far better result (If it is a critical exam), write to your lecturer or the school authority for consideration. Attach all relevant files indicating you were actually ill during the exams.

6. When depressed, understanding that there is little or nothing you can do in certain circumstances can really help you a lot. This will allow you to free your mind from worries. With the little activities you engage daily, the scar may soon go off. Also try number 2 suggestion above.

7. Do not use others’ expectation to rate yourself. Always do the best you can each time.

8. Over-Expectation: From the very beginning, this is at least, one reason why students must not allow career imposition. This is because when they successfully impose a career on you, they also set the bar of performance high. Of course you heard what was said… “he who plays the piper, decides the tune”. Allowing career imposition could cause over-expectations from sponsors and may begin to bring in performance gap.\

9. Victimization: The best way to overcome issues of victimization is to first appeal to the victor. If things do not work out, then someone may want to write to school authority. Carefulness is needed in dealing with issues of victimization because the students’ ways of handling issues like these has not really been the best.

10. Cut down on many, if not all, social media activities. This is to enable you have a robust time for yourself.

11. Do not trust too much in your power and become over-confident. It leads to pride and may also lead to one’s downfall. Be humble and continue studying hard.



Battram, A. (1999) Navigating complexity. London: The Industrial Society.
Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity and postmodernism. London: Routledge.
Morrison, K. R. B. (2002). School leadership and complexity theory. London: Routledge Falmer.
Stewart, M. (2001) The co-evolving organization. Rutland, UK: Decomplexity Associates Ltd.
Wheatley, M. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (second edition). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Youngblood, M. (1997). Life at the edge of chaos. Dallas, Texas: Perceval Publish.

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