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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Masterpiece (4)

I love and I hate exams (in the style of Catullus). Our generation has endured so many (public) exams that exams have become synonymous with education in the modern age. There are many controversies regarding this exam culture, and the message of this blog is not to launch another tirade against the pros/cons of exams (in a nutshell, I am not as hostile towards exams as some people are, since I do believe that exams can be an extremely productive intellectual process IFF they are taken in the right way by students and teachers, but perhaps another post on this). Nonetheless, I hate the process of doing exams and waiting for exam results, since they are always very stressful and not good for one’s health. Before the exam, one is busy preparing for it, and as it approaches, one gets increasingly nervous, until the very big day finally arrives and one fights for one’s life in the examination hall. Afterwards, one may have a brief moment of respite to breathe and recover (and celebrate), but before long the sense of yearning and anxiety returns when one awaits the announcement of the exam results, which can either be a moment of jubilation and celebration or a period of disappointment and grief. This cycle has happened to me many times before, especially at Oxford where the undergraduate assessment was almost exclusively exam-based with minimal assessment by way of research or coursework, and the sense of longing after the exams can be an absolute torture. Another thing about exams is that they are very funny things and unless one is psychic, one can never predict the results, no matter how one feels about one’s performance. One may think that one has done exceptionally welI in a paper but it turns out to be a disaster, or the reverse as one may be dreading the results for a paper thinking that one has completely ruined it but it turns out to be one’s best mark. I do not believe that exam results are totally random, as one does get a general sense of how one has done i.e. if the paper is so difficult that one submits nothing at all, one cannot possibly expect to do well (!), but on the whole the correlation between one’s assessment of one’s performance and the actual results is not particularly strong (at all), which can be both pleasantly and cruelly surprising. This certainly happened to me once before. It was in Easter 2007 after we completed the first part of our degree (Honour Moderations). It is always the case that, unless one does not care about one’s studies at all (in which case one would not study at Oxford), one always worries about one’s performance and even re-thinks the content of one’s responses, and the more one cares about a particular subject, the more one thinks about it. In the first part of my degree, my favourite papers (by far) were Greek and Latin Prose Composition. It is hard to explain why I loved those papers, but those were the ones I spent most time and attention on, and after the exams I found myself thinking about my prose passages over and over again. The more I thought about them, however, the more discouraged I became since I discovered more and more errors in my scripts. I started dreading my results for Prose Composition and was convinced that I was going to fail. When the big day came, however, I was very surprised to discover that my marks for Prose Compositions were (by quite some distance) my best and the other papers which I felt much more comfortable with were way lower than I expected. I was both encouraged and discouraged, which was a very funny experience. It seems strange that one’s results can run so far contrary to one’s expectations, but at the same time it does make sense. The subjects that I felt most insecure about were the ones which I liked best and for which I had done the most preparation, whereas those that I felt easiest about were the ones which I did not really care about and had not done nearly as much for. In this way, the apparent paradox between one’s expectations and the actual results does not seem to be so much of a paradox, since it is not surprising that the subjects for which one does the most work for turn out to be one’s strengths and vice versa. The real paradox lies in the negative correlation between one’s ability and one’s confidence level in a particular subject, the fact that one can prepare so much (and be apparently good at) a particular subject yet still feel so insecure about it, whereas those subjects that one feels most confident about can turn out to be one’s Achilles’ heel, but again this all makes sense in light of the fact that one’s strengths lie in the things that one practises most for and is hence most self-critical about, whereas one’s weaknesses lie in the things that one does not much care about and hence dismisses in the belief that one has done enough. One can never do enough, and the things that we feel least comfortable with are often the things that we know best, since we know just how little we have done and just how much more we need to do. In the words of my former Housemaster at school, ‘Those who are confident are those who have not done enough, whereas those who are insecure are those who have done most.’ He said this to me just before my Grade 7 Viola exam which I had also done a lot of preparation for yet felt very insecure about both before and after the exam. Another funny paradox, but one which somehow makes sense if one considers the amount of effort and self-awareness (i.e. input) that one invests. Our masterpieces are often created in moments of self-insecurity and doubt. Don’t give up.

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