From education to employment

Part Two of the Examothon with Daniel Wallis!

Pupils and students have been recently urged by the South West Regional Skills Partnership not to become stressed over exams. Last week, Thank Goodness it’s FE-riday (TGI FE) looked at the run-up to exams, including rumours, timetables, predicted grades”¦this week we actually enter the exam room and take the test.

Most exam-savvy students will tell you that when they settle at their desks in the examination room, their minds have been already working the test for some time. Specifically, since they were waiting out in the corridor a few minutes beforehand, hurriedly flicking through a last-minute textbook as if the antidote were in it. These people will tell you, the best revision is the panicked glances at note sheets you get just before you have to step into the room, when a kind of photographic memory is called upon to save the day. Be warned, however, the system works a little too well; most kids end up recalling a word perfect rendition of the doodles they scribbled at the corner of the page than the crucial chemistry notes next to it.

A Comfy Seat in the Hall!

Once you”ve settled in the hall, you have time to reflect on the task at hand. You mentally single out the position of the clock and realize that you could have had an extra four minutes revision. You glance at the person next to you. A slight smile, nod, raised eyebrows”¦for the next two hours this person will be your paranoid rival. They”re sitting there, well revised, with pencil case, digital calculator, graphics pen, backup pen and double emergency backup pen, bottle of water with the label carefully peeled off as per regulations (a real grind for people taking GCSE Water Studies) and maybe even an officially sanctioned mascot grinning inanely at you. Meanwhile, you”ve got your biro”¦ and a broken pencil stub somewhere as backup, a rubber so old it’s gone black, and actually does more damage than the actual mistake, and a cracked ruler that says “shatterproof”.

The paper is ready and waiting for you, such service!! The invigilator tells you that you may look through it before the test begins, almost as if to say: “It makes no difference anyway”¦You”re DOOMED!” The person next to you looks through it and nods intellectually. You look through it and wonder if you”ve sat down in the wrong room. A hysterically optimistic voice tells you that it will be “alright”, you”ll come up with the answers somehow”¦you recognize it as the same voice that told you the tooth-fairy was real all those years ago. You cast a wistful look out of the window, if you are lucky enough to get near one. The sun is shining, children are laughing distantly, “outside” suddenly seems like some impossible Utopia, the Land That Exams Forgot.

Owning Up

After you”ve signed the exam paper (so much for your plan of claiming absence) and fought with the sticky label on the front (a test in itself), the exam begins. Within seconds the student next to you is scribbling like a madman, drawing ruler lines, punching codes into their calculator. Meanwhile, you”re still flirting with “DO NOT write in this space”. Next door’s answer to the first question seems to be half a page long, with diagrams. You”ve read the question a dozen times, but can”t come up with any answer except the number twelve. It’s going to be a long, long afternoon.

As next door slaughters the paper, you decide to evaluate the fraud potential. Keeping a peripheral eye on the invigilator, you glance around you for possible sources of plagiarism. Superstudent next to you writes in letters large enough to tempt you but just not quite legible enough at this distance, and as you look, the mascot smirks and taunts you; it too, is out of reach. Some students spend hours in advance of their exams writing notes in impossibly small letters on their stationery, almost like Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape.

Some useful tips: Get a calculator with a flip cover. This can provide you with acres of space to fill with minute graphs, timelines and name lists. If the school provides you with a calculator, do it anyway, it’s fun; carefully shave off the paint from one side of a hexagonal pencil. Write a couple of key equations on the wood, then, when you”re in the exam room, keep the pencil notes-face down on the desk. If you drop it, DO NOT ask an invigilator to come and pick it up for you; and maybe even writing hidden notes is best done with a “B” pencil; it is only visible if the light hits it a certain way, and can be rubbed off in an emergency. Try not to spend time staring at your stationery from different angles like a “magic-eye” picture, though; people will think you”ve succumbed to stress.

Light in Tunnels

As time passes, people start to leave early. Only two types of student do this: geniuses, who have sailed through the paper with flying colours, off to reserve their Oxbridge applications, and complete failures, who have crashed their exams kamikaze-style and gone out in a blaze of glory in the first hour. Great respect is given to both types, for to fail with brilliance is in itself an admirable quality, and even achieves a kind of greatness. You, however, are in it for the full run, spending every possible second trying to wrench marks out of the thing, including adding unrelated information just to show that you”re not that dumb really. The answers may not be right, but I”d like to see anyone number their pages as neatly as this, you tell yourself defiantly.

The panic of hearing “five minutes left” goads you into thinking up weird and wonderful answers you never would have thought of, and at the time look so much more plausible than the sensible answer that will earn you marks: this you scribble out at the last minute and replace with a new theory of your own design. At “one minute left” you notice a glaring error you have made, like mistaking metres for centimeters or writing “Napoleon Dynamite” instead of “Bonaparte”¦ hastily you try to rectify it but alas, too late! “Pens down, please.” And that’s it. The Exam is over. You are now left in a kind of vacuum until exams next come your way, and in a way you will miss the stress and the fear that has kept you going these past few weeks. But by the time you leave the exam hall, the memory is already fading, a couple of days and it will be gone altogether.

Stressing the Luck

The important thing about exams is the stress. As a means of assessing students they are terribly unreliable, in that they do not allow the participant to display the full range of their knowledge, instead providing a kind of lottery as to what 5% of the course will be examined out of the 80% you know very well: tough luck if they don”t correspond. Also, there is too much emphasis on the performance, with a student’s abilities being eroded by heat, cramp, illness, tiredness or just sheer panic; many a bright student has underperformed in an exam due to these unappreciated symptoms. Therefore, as a means of assessment, exams would only be useful to someone entering a career in which they do nothing but take exams.

But the relevance of exams comes from precisely these faults. Where else does a pupil learn about stress, pressure, disappointment and responsibility? What better practice for a life of meeting deadlines, coping with pressure, dealing with failure? How else to become independent, and work as an individual for your own benefit? This is the true meaning of exams; like medicine, being the most unpleasant experience but somehow, somewhere, slightly good for you.

Daniel Wallis

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