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Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy. Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems. My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging. But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education. It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.
In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil. In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise. If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test. But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards. The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.
So, what of education? Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired. A degree is the same, is it not? How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching? The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking. Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course. A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test.
Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot.
Don’t worry I’ve not regressed, well not yet anyway. I was watching Match of the Day last night, not quite the usual programme, as there are no football matches at the moment. In its place was a podcast by three football legends, the usual presenter Gary Lineker (he does more than Walkers’ crisp adverts), Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. It was more like three old codgers around a kitchen table reminiscing about football than a Match of the Day programme, but it was funny and enlightening. One of the topics that arose was what made a top striker, was it being gifted or was it hard work and tenacity? I have to confess by this time I was half falling asleep aided by three gin and tonics and a large helping of pizza, but I do recall through the haze, that the three of them seemed to agree that it was a bit of both, maybe 50/50. What did make me sit up was when Shearer declared , or was it Lineker, who cares, there were a number of more talented players around when they were younger but they didn’t stick at it and, I presume fell by the wayside. So, three very talented footballers agree that hard work and tenacity has a major part to play in success.
When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. By the age of 14, I had this firmly set in my mind. I was good at the sciences, maths and English were no problem and I was predicted to get good grades when leaving school, university was on the cards. Then the teenage years really took hold, I grew lazy, rebelled, preferred football, rugby and girls. Hard work at school sucked and I stopped working, anyway someone told me that I had to do 7 years at medical school if I wanted to be a doctor. F*** that, I thought, I want out of school now, not to prolong it by another 7 years. We were overseas at the time, so when I returned to England, I ended up going to college to complete my ‘O’ levels. I remember thinking the work was a breeze, it seemed that I had been working at a higher level at my overseas school. I found myself a part time job, occasionally skipped college classes but in general my attendance was good. I achieved 5 good ‘O’ level grades. I do remember working very hard at science as a subject (I achieved an A for that) but the rest, well you know, it just happened. English language was my worst subject (a grade C), mind numbingly boring.
So, after school, well a job in a petrol station as a cashier, it was a job, better than nothing. I do remember one of my college lecturers coming into the station and was almost apoplectic about me working there. I was better than that, I think was the gist of it. Then my family went back overseas again. I found myself a few jobs overseas and simply drifted; I could have had an apprenticeship, but we were returning to England, so not much point. On our return though I decided I needed a job, not so easy. This was the early 1980s, UB40 released a song One in Ten, I was one of those one in ten unemployed souls. Disheartening wouldn’t describe it adequately. My working mates were going out to pubs and clubs and eating kebabs after to soak up the alcohol, I couldn’t afford a kebab, let alone the alcohol and you don’t meet girls on the dole queue.
I always had a hankering to join the Royal Navy, probably fuelled by the fact my grandad had been in the navy. I liked the idea of being an engineer, so I went along to the recruitment office and eventually turned up for an entrance exam. I failed, maths of all things. I remember sitting there and panicking whilst trying to do equations and fractions. Basic stuff that I’d breezed through at ‘O’ level. Nobody told me about preparation, and I didn’t even think about it. Why would I, up to that point I really hadn’t had to work hard at anything other than my science subject at ‘O’ level. Reality hit home. I signed up for an A level maths course at college – free to the unemployed. I wrote to Whitehall to explain how well I’d done in my entrance exam apart from the sticky little subject, maths, but pointed out that I was doing something about that. I didn’t want to wait the usual statutory year to retake the exam and I wasn’t disappointed; they wrote back stating I could take it in 6 months’ time. Someone obviously thought this boy’s got a bit of gumption. But six months of unemployment is a long and depressing time. An advert in the local Sunday newspaper caught my attention, the police were recruiting. I applied and found myself in a career that was to last thirty years. Not something I planned or even wanted.
Maybe that’s when the hard work and tenacity started, I don’t know. Maybe it started when I was driven by the desperation of being unemployed. One thing I learnt though is that sitting on your backside and drifting along doesn’t get you anywhere. Having a gift or intelligence will not in itself get you success. Only hard work and of course, that all important thing called opportunity, helps to garner something.
The recruitment process for the police wasn’t the same as it is now. Maybe I should leave that for another blog.
Nearly a month has passed since I told @paulaabowles that I would be writing another blog post, one that would act as a continuance of the last, thus a part 2 of ‘Navigating Mental Health at University’, I can’t deny it has been frustrating that I haven’t allowed myself the time to write this post because although it helps me in some small way to share and create, my goal is to help anyone else who may be struggling with similar issues. Hopefully there will be some helpful information in this blog post that will inform and guide you on how to take control of any mental health issues you may be dealing with right now, and so I truly hope that you enjoy the blog and that it may help you in some small way. Thus, I present…
‘Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a worldwide health pandemic’
I hope to make you feel at ease with your mind by knowing that you are not alone in how you feel, it is then, that you may be able to realise that ‘well if it works for her then maybe it will work for me’, and when you get to that realisation it is important to thank yourself because you are allowing your mind and body to try something that may ease that strain on your mental health.
Firstly, I want to begin by discussing what has happened to me during these past two months and how I have handled the issues that have faced me during this extremely difficult time. If you have read my other post ‘Navigating Mental Health at University’ then you will have a little insight into my story of which I’d like to start with the topic of the Anti-Depressants that I have been taking since Christmas time.
(Please note that the following is not recommended and please take advice from your GP)
Just three weeks ago I decided that I finally felt so uncomfortable with the pills that I decided to stop taking the Fluoxetine (20mg – a relatively low dosage), I never felt that I truly needed them despite my PTSD, Anxiety and Depression but I gave them a go because I felt that it was the push in the right direction of allowing my mind to heal. I can’t deny that I feel they certainly have had a positive effect on me, especially when dark moment’s come to pass, throughout my life I have regularly had moments where I would completely give up and felt that absolutely nothing could be done to feel better (these were usually my very lowest moments of thoughts of suicide) and these have haunted me ever since I was little, but now they come and they pass within seconds. If you’re wondering how it is possible that now I react completely different then I would say that it comes down to varying factors such as maturation and life events but one key difference that I do now is I try to remain as present in the moment as possible and when that thought passes through my mind I don’t let it consume me, instead I question it and once I’m finished detangling that thought I actually speak to myself via my internal dialogue, I’d say something like ‘thanks for your input’, ‘I appreciate your emotions but suicide is not the right response’, by physically or mentally responding in such a way you are actually training your mind to disperse those negative thoughts and allowing them to pass through you, whilst you are simultaneously acknowledging and digesting how you feel then you work through why you feel that way and then you let it go. So maybe my responses have changed because the Fluoxetine raised my serotonin levels enough to be able to respond differently, but I feel that is naive to put down such a great feat to only a tablet, Instead I’m giving myself a little pat on the back because it’s the fact that I choose to be conscious and aware in that moment that allows the change in mindset and these are the very small difference’s you can make to take that step in the right direction of healing your pain.
The physical-mental space connection
One thing that works greatly for me is keeping my space tidy, fresh and full of houseplants I own around 70 plants because I am fortunate enough to have the space however all you need to do is own just one and allow yourself a few minutes every couple of days to take care of it because it is during this time that you allow moments of calmness and mindfulness whilst proving to yourself that you can have the responsibility to take care of a living thing which will in turn allow you to realise that you have the ability to take care of yourself. However please don’t limit yourself to a houseplant! Maybe take a moment right now to consider what has been lacking your attention recently? Does the bathroom need a good scrub? or is there a huge pile of clothes that need to be sorted? Well start small and work your way up, allow yourself the time to clear and take care of your space because it will truly work wonders on raising your low mood but remind yourself to aim for done not for perfect! For me I spend a great deal of time on developing and bettering my physical space although it certainly feels like an urban jungle I cannot deny that the positive effects are numerous, I walk into my study room and I smile because I have filled that room with things I love, books and paintings and personal trinkets and by doing this It makes me want to stay in that space and study! I don’t force it; I just wonder into that room and feel so comfortable that I don’t want to leave!
TIP: Must of us students don’t have a great deal of money (I certainly do not), and if you want to add something new to your bedroom or home on a budget whilst a lot of shops are closed look to places like Facebook Marketplace or try to shop at local and independent business such as found on Depop and Etsy! However, if you are decluttering your space, then use your social media outlets to sell your items or even to pass them along to someone who may use them!
And on that note…
Declutter your mental space
And let me tell you why… When your mind is constantly filled with information, things to do, people to message, essays to write, what to cook for dinner … if your mind is consistently focusing on these little (granted important) tasks then you are not allowing yourself to be totally present and totally focused on the task at hand, even if the task is watching Netflix then you are not allowing yourself to truly relax because you are concerning your mind with so many other things. De-cluttering your mind applies to when you are suffering from anxiety and depression too, for me when I have a particularly negative thought pass through my mind or maybe where it’s one of those days that I cannot help but to think negatively of myself, I use the tools I’ve learnt such as being present and focused on this moment that I am in and this moment that I feel right now which essentially grounds you in that moment, combined with watching my breath I allow myself to think the thoughts (you know, the nasty negative ones) and then I imagine a windscreen wiper just wiping them out of my mind… and it really is those small moments that once you’ve tackled them, leads to much bigger and much more positive changes in your mental health overall. Don’t deny your emotions and certainly don’t bury them but allow yourself to fully immerse in the emotions and those thoughts that weigh you down and then just let them go.
TIP: Another way to declutter your mind is to simply write down all of your thoughts, whether it’s a to do list or perhaps just lots of thoughts running around your mind, then just write them down, as it is the act of taking them from your mind and putting them onto paper that will allow you to work on them because your mental space is free.
So, what about my studies?
In all 8 weeks of lockdown do you know I have spent barely a handful of those days studying and yet I don’t feel guilty for it, I did feel bit guilty at first and I was beating myself up a-bit because I was adamant that I would be a failure if I didn’t study. So I kept in mind that I was capable of putting more effort into my studies, and for the past few weeks I stopped feeling guilty and I stopped putting pressure on myself, If I had a good idea for an essay that is due then I’d jot the idea down and stick it on the wall or if I had a tiny bit of admin to do I’d space it throughout a couple of days or do a power hour. Overall I have stopped forcing myself to study and I’ve stopped guilt tripping myself because it only creates negativity and negative thoughts that make us feel even worse, it is these bad habits that feed our mental health issues and it is these habits that need to stop.
So I am in my second year right now and I still have 4 essays and 1 exam to complete, I pressured myself so much into believing that I could complete them for their primary due dates but those dates have passed, so for a while I stayed in a kind of limbo state on how to tackle these outstanding assessments but we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to rely on the no detriment policy which personally for me has been undeniably helpful and so I am choosing to take the time I need and remember that not only am I trying to complete assignments but also focus on my mental health, take care of my home and myself and partner, maintain my friendships, support my grandparents, but that I am doing this during a time where the present and the future doesn’t make sense and offers a whole new world of difficulties to overcome. So next time when you are internally beating yourself up for not reading that extra journal article please go easy on yourself, take a breath and return back to studying when you feel mentally able to, it is then that you will produce great work!
How to approach studying?
If you’re like me and have spent maybe a handful of days studying in the past 8 weeks, or maybe none or maybe everyday but feel like you’re stuck in a rut… then don’t ignore how your feel, What I would recommend when you feel like this is to jot down every single thing that you feel needs to be completed, by doing this you are simply transferring all of that information out of your mind and onto paper which frees up your mental space!
In addition to my personal take on how to tackle your mental health I’ve asked a couple of fellow students to share their own take on how they are handling their health during the lockdown and to provide you with a little comfort knowing you are not alone in how you feel…
…“So as you know, my mental health those last few weeks at uni was really bad. Luckily, I managed to get my transfer for work, and I moved back home literally a day before the government announced the lockdown. I believed my mental health was so low because I was lonely, as soppy as that may sound, but the second I stepped through that front door to that new house my parents had bought back in December, in which I had no time to decorate my bedroom (lol), I instantly felt better somehow.
Just being at home, with my parents and my partner, somehow was the one thing that made me feel better about myself and this situation.
I’ve been keeping busy during the lockdown, doing uni assignments and prepping for ‘exams’. I’ve been cleaning and decorating, baking and playing games. I’ve brought a car to finish my driving lessons, so that was a big exciting thing for me the past week. I’m also a key worker, so going to work to support people that can’t do so for themselves really gives you a sense of perspective. In all honesty with you, I haven’t been worried about this pandemic. I have simply been doing want I want to do, when I want to, to the terms of the lockdown of course. I haven’t let uni stress me out, I’ve kept it slow and steady. The closest I’ve come to worried about this pandemic is when my mum told me her workplace, a care home, has had an outbreak of covid-19 and they are thinking of a strategy to deal with it. But like I said, other than that, I’ve actually been great”
“I am finding the current situation with COVID-19 rather difficult as I would usually have a routine and structure for a few weeks so I can plan out my schedule whilst also fitting in things that are non-university related. I know I need to crack on and get my work done however, at the moment I am feeling lethargic and lacking motivation on almost a daily basis which is difficult for me to swallow due to my usual motivated and positive attitude. Waking up and knowing every day is the same is my current biggest struggle. At the moment I am lacking the energy to do some revision for my upcoming exams, even though I have longer to do the exam and its open book I still want to have a good level of understanding for when the questions are released. I have written 2 essays since being in lockdown and I have managed to write these to reasonable standard as they were timed assessments it seemed to provoke the urgency within me that is obviously lacking in other areas. As this situation is unprecedented, I do not know whether the amount of preparation I am doing now is too little or too much which fills me with a touch of anxiety as I am usually comfortable in my normal routine. I would say my overall feeling is seeing that that there is an amazing opportunity to get some great exam results but alongside this is definitely a feeling of anxiety and an overwhelming lack of motivation.”
“I haven’t given much thought into my mental health throughout my later teen years onwards, however, during this recent pandemic it has given me time to really reflect on how (what I guess people call) my mental health is and how I cope with it. I have come to the terms that I am a hypochondriac (constantly worrying about every little thing and making situations 10x worse I’m my head). Therefore, during my studies, I become quite conflicted. I have recently taken a lot of time off from revision and TCAs, by reading or watching Netflix, totally ignoring the fact that I have work to do, so now exams have become almost a week away, the huge wave of stress has come over me that I have done little to no preparation for the past 3 weeks. Therefore, I go into a state to complete adrenaline, doing work throughout all hours of the day while constantly battling with myself that I should have done this sooner.
However, as I stated, during this lockdown, I have had time to reflect on my mental well-being. As before I saw having days off or even the odd few hours as a failure, I now see it as a necessity to be able to switch my brain off and find some calming relief within this crazy world. Being able to engage in things I enjoy and make me happy to bring my stress levels down and relax for a while.”
“I find it very difficult, to say the least. It is very hard to stay disciplined and focus on revising/getting any university work done, because I’ve always struggled with creating a routine for myself. I think it’s not even the fact that you kind of have to figure everything out on your own at home, it’s more the mental state that keeps putting me off. I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety because of everything that has happened since the pandemic, e.g. losing my job. For the first work or two i could not get myself to do anything because depression was creeping around the corner. its not easy. I think what has helped me to get out of that mindset is trying my best to find positives rather than negatives. I’ve been doing things i normally don’t have the time to do, things that make my soul happy – reading greats books, painting. In terms of doing my university work – I’m sure everyone is struggling right now, and the main thing is to understand that its normal. I’ve stopped beating myself up if I don’t feel like I’m able to do the work, instead I plan a different time to do it, so it helps me prepare for it mentally. I think it is very, very difficult at the moment, because there is so much going on around, but it’s very important to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Understanding that life does go on and this will come to an end, therefore not letting yourself drift off. it’s important to remind yourself of your goals. Doing at least one thing everyday that makes you happy, for example buying lots and lots of plants! it is hard and I think all I was trying to say is – it’s okay not to be okay. and celebrating every little thing is key!!”
“The way I have been handling it is basically watching a load of Criminal Minds and Waterloo Road. I also think being in my accommodation has helped a lot, like I’m still with friends so I can have my “me time” but also go and hang out essentially. I feel like my mental health is fine like I’m still the same, I don’t feel depressed at all or anything like that. Pretty lucky I guess but the only thing is i miss my family, like I would go home but with my mum being terminally ill I don’t want to risk it until things are better. But overall, I feel pretty good, I’m doing things that I actually want to do such as binge watching and not worry as much. I’m in my own little bubble, I’m doing what I want and I’m happy with that even if I can’t do outdoor things”
- Counsellors – The Counsellors will listen to you and help you respond to the difficulties in your life, they will allow you to develop your abilities to address and resolve issues in your life. https://firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mental Health Advisors – The Mental Health Advisors will help you to discuss your mental health difficulties and work with you to develop coping strategies whilst studying. https://email@example.com
- Assist – Assist can give you advice and guidance for managing your disability whilst studying, the DSA application will give you the opportunity to have 6 appointments with the counselling team who can further help work through your issues . https://www.northampton.ac.uk/student-life/support/about-assist/ ASSIST@northampton.ac.uk
If you have been affected by any of the issues I have discussed during this blog post and your struggling to manage or cope with these issues then you can also use any of the following services;
- Speak to your GP, they can refer you to the NHS Mental Health Services.
Other helpful support (local and national)
The other day I had occasion to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and I did this via a web chat. My query was simply about seeking an explanation regarding tax relief. I compiled my question starting off with ‘good morning, I’ve had my tax code updated and am a little confused.’ I then went on to explain in a few short words where the confusion lay.
The response back was quite familiar, it would be to those that use web chat and quite expected, ‘Thank you for your patience, the next available advisor will be with you shortly. You are 7 in the queue’. Little was I to know at this stage, that my patience was about to be severely tested, not by the waiting time but by the advisor who, to avoid any embarrassment to the real person, we will simply call ‘Jo’. After eight minutes of waiting (not a particularly long time) I was through to Jo and greeted with a request for my details for security.
Once supplied, I was told that Jo would be looking at my record. Jo then responded by telling me that the adjustment in my tax code was due to an underpayment from the 18/19 tax year, explained how much it was and the fact it would be collected through the tax code. Now I should point out, this was not the question I was asking, RTFQ, I wanted to know about an aspect of tax relief and just to add to the confusion, the HMRC website tells me I do not owe any tax from the 18/19 year. The latter makes sense to me because I paid off the amount owed in 19/20. A little agitated I responded with my question again trying to make it a little clearer, as if it wasn’t clear enough. I added to this by asking if my assumptions were perhaps incorrect and if so could Jo tell me when the rules had changed. The response was ‘one moment’. Four minutes later I asked, ‘are you still there?’, the terse response was, ‘yeah, i (sic) am looking through the guidance for you’. This does not bode well!
Trying to be helpful, I responded by explaining the tax relief I received last year, and the fact that I ought to receive it this year, unless of course the rules have changed the response, ‘one moment please’. To be followed by ‘the 480 is from 480.00/40% = 1200 so its at 40%’. Now I’m no Trigger (see Only Fools and Horses) but this mathematical genius has me somewhat perplexed, so I pushed a little further to see if I could get an explanation of this. I ended up with ‘480.00/40% =1200 which is 40% of the 480’.
My patience wearing a little thin now, I asked to speak to a supervisor only to be told there was no supervisor available and ‘They will be telling you the same thing, you can call in to speak to someone else if you want’. So, I can hang up on the web chat, start another and in the lottery of numpties, I will take my chance that I might not get another Jo to answer my query, I think not. To add insult to injury, Jo had just previous to this provided me with an answer that was in fact the basis of my question, we seemed to have gone full circle (RTFQ). In desperation and trying to prevent my blood pressure rising further I tried to draw this to a close by pointing out the problem as I see it, prefixing this with, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult. I just want an explanation as to why …’. I followed this up with, ‘If you cannot answer that, then please just say so’. The response, ‘I have explained to you the best way i (sic) can Stephen’. Now that’s me told! Best not push it further.
I recall first hearing the term RTFQ when I was about to sit a promotion exam. RTFQ the invigilator shouted, before gazing upon my quizzical expression, ‘read the f*** question’ he explained. I frequently remind my students of this mantra before they sit exams, it is one that serves us well, not just at university when sitting exams or completing assignments, but in life. Although I’m not sure that RTFQ is something that Jo needs to prioritise whilst tripping through the wonderment of mathematical equations.
Or maybe, just maybe, it is a new tactic by HMRC to limit enquiries. I certainly won’t be calling back in a hurry.