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Approaching Exams: An Open Letter to Students

Thursday 29 April 2021

Dear Students,

Rites of passage, including coming of age, often involve elaborate and sometimes painful rituals. From around the world, some of these transition to adulthood ceremonies involve wearing gloves stuffed with biting bullet ants, leaping towards the hard-packed ground from a high tower with vines tied (tightly, with any luck) to your ankles, and jumping lines of skittish cows. In the contemporary world, it is less easy to know what constitutes a coming of age ritual. There are a few candidates. For you, sitting your IB examinations is one of them. As nervous as you may be approaching your exams, there is little risk you will endure pain, and you certainly won’t die.

So, let’s put your IB exams into their proper context: They are important. And, the significance of your exams will cause you anxiety. However, failure or poor performance in an exam is not a life-or-death matter. So, get some perspective. Get real. Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud all failed exams. In life generally, it may be said, they didn’t do badly.

Exams, believe it or not, have an upside. Seriously. They force you to take stock of your knowledge and skills. And they help you, in a very powerful way, to bring together your understanding of your course. Channeling your nervous energy into exams enables you to understand your course much better than if you didn’t sit them at all.

Let’s bust a few commonplace myths about exams: Exams are not constructed to expose you as an ill-informed imposter. Rather, they are an opportunity to show what you do know. You will not have understood every idea or concept taught on your course. That doesn’t matter; ‘knowing everything’ is not a prerequisite for sitting and passing an exam and is, in any case, an unreasonable expectation. In addition, your exams are not tests of memory. Instead, exams ask you apply your understanding of your course and to develop arguments around this understanding. Also, exams are not intended only for fast thinking speedwriting specialists. Keep in mind that a good, pithy answer always trumps a long, rambling one. Prior preparation before exams and knowing your approach, including how you will manage your time, is essential. Whilst you have to revise thoroughly for your examinations, you don’t have to revise until you drop, ignoring everything else that is important in your life.

If these are some of the myths, what is the reality? What mistakes could actually impact on your exam performance? Well, the biggest mistake you can make is to fail to answer the question. In Paper 1, for example, you must address aspects of texts such as purpose, reader, and context. In Paper 2, you must respond to the prompt. You must understand the command terms, and you must construct a balanced, objective argument in response to what you are asked. You should be selective in your response to exam questions, using relevant knowledge and examples to support your claims. There is no exam question that begins ‘write everything you know’. Your result is also likely to suffer through poor presentation. Your response must be appropriately structured into paragraphs and sentences (You’d be surprised by how many students ‘forget’ this in an exam). And, your handwriting must be legible. Your response may be a little scrappy; this is probably unavoidable. But, remember, your examiner is a teacher, not a cryptographer.

Let’s discuss revision: The key purpose of revision is to bring together all that you know about the course you have studied. Understand this: Now, with exams in sight, is not the time to engage in significant new learning. Without a period of revision, your course will remain rather incoherent. Revision, understood as a constructive or reconstructive process, allows you a further opportunity to take ownership of ideas and skills already learned. Revision isn’t a memory test. Remembering without understanding is pointless. In the last 4-6 weeks of the course you should begin to revise. Plan this revision. Construct a timetable. The timetable should be realistic. And, it isn’t set in stone; life often intrudes on our best intentions. Collect your books and notes. Organize your notes meaningfully. Rewrite them, condensing key ideas and identifying links between them. Use your own words (except when revising terminology; now is not your opportunity to find synonyms for ‘metaphor’).

Working with notes and actively rewriting is a good strategy. At least as good – and probably better – is working with past exam papers. You have worked with these in class, of course. You have access to every past exam paper. I know, because I gave them to you. Practice by planning and outlining responses. Write some responses in full. Occasionally, if time allows, practice working in timed conditions. Master the art of writing lucid and concise introductory paragraphs. Ensure you can effectively embed supporting quotations into your writing. For Paper 2, based on your knowledge of past exams, write your own exam questions.

In the period before the exam, look after yourself. You should – it’s common sense - always do this. Now, however, it is particularly important. Sleep well. Eat well. Enjoy fresh air and exercise. Don’t procrastinate with time poorly spent online, but do reward yourself for the time and effort you do spend revising. Rewards can be small – a candy bar or watching a TV programme, for example; ostentatious extravagance is not necessary. Keep in touch with fellow students, but remain focused on your own exam. Don’t appropriate someone else’s stress. Remember, anxiety is normal and is a necessary prerequisite for performing to the best of your ability during exams. If you want to, discuss your anxiety with me, your parents or guardians, or other support staff in the school. We really are here to help you.

On the days when you have exams, try to go about your routines as normally as possible. Do no further revision (for the particular paper!). Ensure you allow for plenty of time to arrive at school. Focus on the task ahead.

Soon enough, your exams will be over, and you can breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief. If you have worked hard during your course, you will almost certainly do well. Even if you have worked inconsistently, it is still quite probable that you will be successful. In the final analysis, examinations are not the most important thing in life. Far from it. And, exam success or failure does not define you. Although exams are stressful, it is probably more desirable to sit at a desk with pen and paper than to endure the sting of the bullet ant that, some say, is thirty times more painful than the sting of a bee. Ouch!

Best of luck in your exams and in everything else that is to come.

Bon voyage.

I first published this in 2016. It's interesting (for me, at least) to reread it now. The biannual cycle of IB exams seemed so normal - 'natural', even - back then. Although many students are about to participate in exams (in May 2021), some are not, and some may be facing more pressing concerns than school exams. Let's hope for better times ahead. 


Comments 3

Smita Lall 4 May 2021 - 04:19

This is a lovely sentiment and thanks for sharing it!

Iisha Servansing 5 May 2021 - 04:48

This is so well expressed David. I am going to share it with my students. It definitely put exams in perspective and given the unusual times we are all living in, its relevance is poignant.

David McIntyre 5 May 2021 - 06:18

Thank you, Smita and lisha,

I'm hoping to give it to my graduating class next May (2022), at which point, without irony, it will all make perfect sense.

Here's hoping,


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