Wait is over: GCSE students at a Bristol academy pick up their results, August 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on being in education: how to pass your damn exams

You know, and I know, that exams are an awful hazing ritual, but to beat the system you must first learn how to play it.

The most important thing is not to panic. Exam season is upon us again and the stink of panic carries on the spring air as healthy young people lock themselves away in airless libraries rather than having dramatic love affairs or plotting to bring down the government. In a spirit of solidarity, I’m going to share some exam survival secrets gleaned over many years of trial and trauma, the most important part of which is this – in order to pass your exams, you must first understand what exams are really for.

Let’s not be coy: exams are bullshit. On its own merits, a three-hour exam is a pointless waste of your time. Exams are not a test of intelligence, or learning, or recall. Exams are a test of how good you are at passing exams.  If your teachers haven’t been clear enough with you about this, dont be cross with them. Most teachers got into the job because they wanted to educate and inspire young people, not teach them to be fact-regurgitating drones, and it’s not their fault that they have to teach to the test. 

Exams are a measure of how well you can play the system. Some of the smartest people I know get poor grades at crunchtime because as soon as they hear “You may now open your papers and start writing”, they panic. This is because, again, exams are not designed to test cleverness but compliance. I’m not the smartest person I know and I’m also constitutionally nervous, but I’ve managed to ace almost every exam I’ve ever taken by training myself to go through the motions, until it came naturally, like playing an instrument.

If you’re lucky, your school or college will help you with this training. One of the things that gives private school pupils an advantage – last year, British private schools they took home over 30 per cent of the top grades at GCSE and A-level, despite educating only 7 per cent of pupils – is the fact that they teach to exams, because they need those top grades to attract wealthy parents. Private and public schools push pupils hard to sit and resit papers until they get the grades. The other reason is confidence. If you grow up hearing that you’re smart, that you matter, that you can do anything you set your mind to, you’re more likely to walk into your exams with the sense of calm assurance you need to get through them.

It’s that same confidence that carries better-off kids through life with the understanding that they can take risks, reach for their goals, and things will probably be OK.  Which makes it doubly unfair, of course, because growing up with money and connections makes it more likely that mediocre exam results won’t have a big impact on your future.

But here’s the good news. Confidence can be faked. Systems can be learned and beaten. What follows is a brief primer on how to do that. If your paper is next week and you haven’t opened the books yet, this won’t help very much, because you can’t put exam skills into practice without basic learning.  But luckily for us last-minute crammers and scammers out there, the system is so twisted that good exam technique can count as much as years of focused study – and sometimes more. 

 

 

1.Prepare your weapons

If you visualise your exams as the physical and mental endurance test they are, it’s easier to train for them. That means no drinking, no drugs, and no staying up late, not even to revise. Whatever you gain in extra knowledge will be counteracted if you turn up to your test sleepy and confused. Pack your bag early and get a good night’s rest. Then on the morning of the exam, get up early and eat breakfast, even if you don’t normally. You don’t want to have a sugar crash halfway through.

Check you’ve got everything you need packed and ready. That includes any superstitious doodahs you may want to take along. Some people have a lucky lipstick, a special pen or a little ritual they do, some of them sacred, some of them extremely profane. This isn’t as silly as it seems. It’s a way of tricking your brain into understanding it’s going to have to do something hard that requires extreme focus. Don’t cheat, or take illicit notes in. Not because it’s immoral but because you’ll probably get caught.

Make sure you know where and when your exam is so you’re not flustered. Have a last-minute read through of your notes before you go in: short-term memory is a powerful tool, and if there’s anything you find particularly hard to remember, you can cram it into your forebrain at the last minute and then scribble it down as soon as you’re allowed to start writing. Obvious as this may sound, you want to arrive on time, with spare pens, and ideally a watch, as you can’t take your phone in, and 80 per cent of practical exam technique is timing.

 

2.Know Your Enemy

It’s all about timing. No amount of revision is going to help if you don't know exactly how the paper is going to be structured, and how long you’ll have to answer each separate part of it. The number of marks available for each question determines how long you’re going to spend on it. You can spend the whole three hours writing a Booker Prize-worthy contemplation on the nature of kinship, art and death, but if the question was “Discuss the theme of friendship in Of Mice And Men,” and it’s only worth 10 per cent of the marks, you’re going to fail. This is another reason exams are stupid.

Allow ten minutes at the beginning of the time to read over the whole paper and plan your answers. Allow another five minutes at the end to check through and correct your spelling. You need to get used to doing this whole routine, from start to finish, and that, I’m afraid, means past papers. 

Setting yourself past papers to do is the number one way to prepare for an exam you’re worried about. No matter how fit and healthy you are, you can’t run a marathon without practice, and the same principle applies. It’s also vital, in this age of universal word-processing, to master the obscure ancient art of actually sitting down for three hours and writing with an actual pen. 

 

3.Beat them at their own game.

The final trick is the most important, not just for your exams but for the life you intend to lead after time’s up and results are in. Once you have learned how to pass exams, you must learn how not to pass exams. Exams are a pernicious, awful hazing ritual designed to produce compliant drones who can give answers on cue, but not doing your best at them only hurts you, so if you really want to beat the system, you have to remember that your real education takes place outside the exam hall. It’s about reading widely, thinking deeply, asking hard questions rather than simply giving the right answers with a smile. If you truly understand that exams are pointless, you can beat them not just in practice but also in principle. Good luck.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era