Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Exam Gene

‘I’m scared.’ 
My boy, in bed, looking suddenly so very small and vulnerable.
I wrinkle my nose in puzzlement. ‘Scared?’
‘Of my exams.’
‘No, no, no… Exams are fun. They’re the best.’
He looks doubtful. ‘But they are,’ I continue firmly. ‘You just do what you can, work like fury for…what?...45 minutes or so and then that’s it. Over. Done.’
‘It’s okay for you.  You liked exams. Dad says you were weird like that.’
‘Yeah, well.  And you’re my son so you’ll probably be weird like that too.  There’s an exam gene you know and I’ve given it to you. It’s about the only useful one I’ve got, so make the most of it.’

The edges of his mouth start to curl and I know I’ve nearly got him.  ‘Are you really scared?’ I go on. ‘Or are you only going along with the crowd?’
He tugs at the sheet. ‘Well, everyone else is shitting bricks…’ 
I raise an eyebrow.
‘Oh, okay,’ he looks down. ‘It’s just English really.  She says if I don’t do well, I’ll be dropped down a set. I’m terrified of getting a bad mark.’
I mentally stick pins into the prone voodoo doll of a teacher who thinks this is the way to encourage a (admittedly lazy) twelve year old boy to do better.
‘Okay…’  I let out a long sigh.  ‘Sooo….  What is the worst that can happen?  You get a crappy mark.  So what?’
He looks puzzled.
‘Well, really.  Do you really think that, when you go to do whatever it is you will want to do, off in the future, that they, whoever they are, will be standing there, shaking their heads and pointing at a sheet of paper and saying…’
He laughs out loud and finishes the sentence. ‘….he got a fail in his Year 7 English exam?’

‘Exactly!  I couldn’t begin to tell you what I got for those exams…’ 
Except, weirdly, I could.  But I don’t tell him that.  Instead I sit on the bed and wrap my arms round him and he lets me and relaxes into me and his eyes close gratefully and I stroke his hair and I feel all the tension melt out of his body. And I hope I have banished his dark thoughts.  And I throw a poisoned spear of loathing at the system that sets us up for fear and anxiety so very young.

Occasionally I still have nightmares about exams – and I know I’m not the only one.  I am about to sit an exam, in a language I don’t know; in a science I don’t understand.  And I feel it afresh, all those years down the line – the fear and the dread and the anticipation of humiliation.

‘Stuff exams,’ I whisper against his soft hair, inhaling his clean skin scent adulterated with Lynx.  He smiles happily. ‘Yeah, stuff ‘em.’  He hugs my arm a little tighter.
‘I love you, Mum.’
‘I love you too, Love.’

How do you help a child with exams?  These are the other things I told James – just not last thing at night…
·         Relax.  Your mind can’t work when your body is tense.  Do some stretching.  Release the shoulders; release the jaw – we hold so much tension in our jaws.
      ·         Plan. So often schools don’t teach children how to divide their time according to the questions.  Teach them how to prioritise – how to play the game.
·         Don’t panic.  If they get frozen with fear, teach them the ‘right now’ technique.  Instead of worrying about the future, ask them if they are okay, right here and now, in this precise minute?  Then tell them they can always come back to the minute and be alright.
·         Focus on the finish. A nifty little technique.  Get them to imagine they have written a blinding paper; answered every question with total ease and project that image really clearly – have them see themselves leaving the exam room, punching the air with pride.


Preseli Mags said...

Yeah, stuff exams. I struggle to remember any of my exam results except my degree (2:2) and a maths exam (97%) which finally convinced evil cow Mrs R to put me up a set (could have done with a voodoo doll of that particular harpy). Mine haven't encountered exams yet - I'll remember your tips - good luck to James for his.

Milla said...

Much preferred exams to the idea of coursework. All the eggs in one glorious basket. Would have hated the modular approach of it drraaagggiinnggg on so. Don't actually think a bit of fear (I said a BIT) does 'em any harm. Depends how you respond, whether a carrot or stick person. I was better working from an I'll show 'em stance so that Englush teacher (like PM's maths one) right up my street. When I went into my Greek O Level exam the teacher said, "you'll fail" (she'd taught & hated my mother, too). I'm sure that's why I got an A!!

Sage said...

and if all else fails, tell them that tests aren't everything and that a good attempt is a positive achievement..

Rosi D said...

I have the exam gene, too. Would've hated being marked on coursework when at school/uni. But exams were always my anxiety dream, until I did a postgrad diploma a few years ago - culminating in exams - seems to have exorcised that particular nightmare. Weird, huh?

Anonymous said...

Oh bless him. In the grand scheme of things they simply aren't worth the worry. Far too much pressure on kids these days. My daughter has just done her Year 3 'optional SATS' which have been less of a concern to her if they had simply been called 'tests' without mention of the word SATS. *sigh* Sounds like he'll be fine with such ressurance from you though.

susie @newdaynewlesson said...

I wish kids would teach each kid according to his capabilities and likes.

Seth Godin wrote a great post a while back

mum in meltdown said...

Seems like so much pressure nowadays!! My son has just done his year 8 end of yr tests and he is so glad they are out of the way. He doesn't mind the exams but he gets stressed over having to revise!!!

Mrs. Tuna said...

I'm back in college, some exams seem easier, others not so much. My daughter is also in college and major stressing about some parts. Just hoping for the best. Ughhhhhhh,

Expat mum said...

Was one of those weirdo's who loved exams - but only if it was a subject I liked, then I would have really studied. I have horrible memories of tht feckin cabbage white O-level biology butterfly, whose life cycle I could never remember.
It does seem a bit ridiculous though, to base your entire future on one 3-hour exam. I probably wouldn't have done so well with assessments, (too many 18th parties) but it's fairer in the long run.
And my word verif is "billet" which I do believe would have been part of my French A level vocab list! Ha!

Anonymous said...

I was good at exams, too, and once I was actually there, enjoyed them mostly. It was a battle of wits; me against the unknown examiner.
But my daughter is totally different and usually doesn't show off her skills as well. Thankfully most of her degree has been by assesments and so on.
I think it's a crying shame kids get so much pressure so early on. As far as I can recall the first exam I sat that had any import was in yr 9 (3rd year high school) and that was for provisionally dividing us between those who sat O level and those who sat CSEs.
Poor James; wish him luck from me!
wv is fecle.

Rob-bear said...

I got through university by writing good papers and not having to sit exams (for the most part). But, yeah; stuff exams.

Best wishes to James.

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

We're living through A Levels and GCSEs at the moment. ARRRRRRGH!

I could completely relate to this post, and what a sweet moment, what a lovely mum.

Good tips too.

Posie said...

Ah Jane, how lovely that he has such a lovely mum and that you can help him to see beyond the stress of too have the laid back attitude of the farmer, which helps when it comes to exams, their mother on the other hand gets in a right state when the offspring are sitting the exams....

speccy said...

I like your approach and fully intend to employ it!

elizabethm said...

This is lovely post Jane and I wish all panicking children could have such loving, funny and intelligent mothers.

Isobel Morrell said...

Exams were bad enough when I was young (in the 1950's! They were at important stages in one's life, but there were gaps in between - when one had time to learn things for the next lot of tests. Now they seem to be there every year, and I really wonder what they exactly produce - other than the fear you talk about. With the curriculum changes that seem to occur all the time, really am so glad that my two are well past the need for the blessed things. Hope your little chap (at 12, he still is!) did well and that it wasn't as bad as he feared. Isobel

Rachel McClellan said...

What a cute story! Your boy is sure to do well with a mother like you.

Sessha Batto said...

I STILL have exam dreams 25 years after my last exam! They used to tie Lurch up in knots and he'd end up doing poorly even though he knew the material. Now he's in an alternative HS where all the exams are oral/practical. I just got his end of year grades and he's gone from failing to all As and Bs . . . not everyone learns/tests the same.

Frankie said...

Oh, exams. God I loved exams. Everyone would just be quiet and leave you alone, and as soon as you were done, you could sleep. They always used to get mad if you fell asleep during regular class times. (I don't know what it is about sitting there and listening to someone drone. I fall asleep in meetings, too.)

I think the two most important exam strategies are the ones they don't tell you:
1. Read through the whole exam quick and if you're stuck on a question, skip it and keep going. Not because of time management, but often because some other question has the answer you're looking for.
2. Essay questions are awesome because you can B.S. your way through. Usually using information you've gleaned from other portions of the exam.

I know, it makes you shake your head and fear for my marks, but I always did very well on exams. The rest of school, not so much...