since august 2005, i have written forty-four exams at the national law school (the forty-fourth being today). not wishing to go into the merits of my performance in this last one in particular, i figured that the subject of exams would make an interesting issue to talk about.
why do people get the way they do during exams? what is it about writing independently in a time-crunch with or without material at one's disposal that makes one inevitably "feel" like exams? and why, even after forty-four of these days, is it still such a big thing?
there's a million ways i could put down my views on exams but i'll channelise it into five types of exam-related issues, just so that i'm not here all day.
the first of these is to do with superstition. everyone has exam superstitions, some fairly shared, some too private to reveal. i've never been a fan of superstition in any context, working on the principle that "merely because a phenomenon provides a certain effect does not mean it was created just to supply that effect" (yes, i did it! woo! i'm willing to lay a wager that that's the first time someone's quoted david washbrook on a once-a-month blog like this). and usually, superstitions with me used to be restricted to stuff like my mum forcing me to have a bowl of curd before exams. but having vowed to steer clear of anything healthy while i'm in bangalore, i figured i'd be superstition-free. right?
wrong. in preparation for an afternoon exam at two, i must sleep between five and six the previous evening, then for seven hours at night and for half an hour between eleven and eleven-thirty the next morning. breakfast at eight. don't read anything at breakfast. bathe around twelve. wear something different for every exam (it's not purely to maintain a hygiene standard, i have a friend who wears the same thing to every exam). while wearing shoes, both socks must go on together. lace the right boot, then the left. no wallet, only loose change for lunch money. if sitting alone on a desk with two chairs, sit on the right. and a few others besides. the funny thing is, i'm certain that these aren't half as ridiculous as what some other people must do.
the second has to do with mental preparation. i'll cite mick foley--the ultimate authority. this is before the '96 boiler room brawl taping. he said that he had to resist the urge to feel stupid inside that big boiler room with only one cameraman as a spectator. before the '99 empty arena match, he had to resist the temptation to yell "cut!" and go backstage for a little more motivation.
call the analogy silly but i've often thought that there's a lot in common between a staging of a well-done play or scene and an exam. sitting here now, i feel depressed that there are far too many people who study with me who yell "cut!" during exams. if you'd raised that with me at two this afternoon, i would've been manically tapping my feet on the floor (or punching myself on the side of my head, as i used to in school) trying really, really hard not to be one of those people. and really, really scared that somewhere, somehow, i was becoming one of them. someone told me last week that, simply put, exams are just about studying for the paper and going and writing the thing. it may be a wild oversimplification but only because it assumes mental preparation.
thirdly, there's question-peeking. the only tuition guy i've ever been to used to tell me that the biggest way exam-takers psyche themselves out is by getting a hold of the exam paper and looking through the questions first and then going back to start attempting the questions. all that does is that it splits that all-important mental capacity between the question you're attempting and the questions you've seen. if you've seen something you don't know, you'll think about it and waste time. if you've seen that you know everything, you'll ease off and take too much time over stuff you already know. when the tuition guy told me this, i was stunned that people actually do this during an exam. i'd sub-consciously developed this habit of covering everything on the paper apart from the question i was attempting. it's got to the point where if i even catch a glimpse, i'd look away instantly. that catch-a-glimpse-and-look-away theory doesn't apply to everything, though. and as i say this, there's a seinfeld conversation between jerry and george about cleavage and solar eclipses that's making me laugh out loud.
four. solitude. there's so much about an exam routine that the exam-taker must go through himself. it's you who has to know one thing from the other, it's you who has to write and it's you who has to take the credit/blame for the outcome. it's inevitable that you'll be alone. and loneliness (it's an uncharitable way of saying "solitude" but it's more appropriate word here) can do really crazy things to people (see, i told you). there's very little correlation, however, between solitude and success. or at least not in an environment such as this. there's a fair share of community studying, lots of courses where people strategise to divide and conquer. and there'll be good exam-takers who'll study in groups, there'll be good exam-takers who'll work things out on their own and there'll be good exam-takers who combine both. i've grown up in an environment where any lack of academic self-sufficiency has been sternly looked down upon and, i guess, by default, i've become someone who takes notes, knows course content and generally can find his way around academically, with none of this being driven by a lack of faith in other peoples' abilities to cover for me (i also suspect that i've always seen my parents handle their tasks at the workplace all by themselves and, in fact, repeatedly emphasising to me how proud they are of their ability to be self-sufficient in that regard. maybe the tendency is genetic. in fact, that's actually something i would love to know--whether work habits in general and exam habits in particular do load the dice genetically in favour of certain people. i wonder if anyone's ever researched this). here, however, the community study angle is quite unique and it's difficult not to get caught up in because, the tighter knit the community, the greater impact it has upon the individual's habits. and when there's nothing to do at eleven on an exam evening, the urge to knock on the next door and see what they're doing is pretty much irresistible. and i suspect, coming back to the group/individual study discussion, that it's the people who go looking for groups to study with but eventually end up studying alone (or vice versa) who get disoriented by the process of finding their optimum study orientation and don't do quite as well.
lastly, there's imagery. it might be a little offbeat to say this, but i get the distinct impression that the reason why exams become such an important occasion isn't purely limited to how much they have riding on their outcome--there's loads and loads of imagery inside the exam-taker's head that contributes to demonising the process. and by imagery, i mean all forms of imagery, however dissipated. it could be the apprehension of how news of a bad paper would be received by friends/family, it could be a song stuck in your head that makes you react a certain way, it could be a comment someone made just outside the exam hall, it could be the association of the idea of an exam with some particular kind of imagery. i find it most convenient, most times, to associate an exam with a time trial-type situation where there's an obstacle course and the clock is ticking and every question constitutes a checkpoint on the trial. three hours for a thirty-mark exam reduces to ten marks' worth of questions per hour which further reduces to five marks for every half-an-hour and therefore, when the first three questions on the paper are worth two marks each, mentally, i'm preparing myself to be halfway through the third answer after half-an-hour. and so on.
i do realise that i've barely scratched the surface. but i've also written four exams in five days, my performance in none of which fills me with tremendous amounts of optimism. so maybe just scratching the surface is enough when it comes to exams.
I'm not sure if there's a point to this story but I'm going to tell it again.
- Eashan Ghosh
- I've been wilfully caught up in the self-defeating quest to get to know myself for years. I've never expected anything beneficial to result from such a quest. I tend to evoke extremely polarised reactions from people I get to know in passing. Consequently, only those people who know me inside-out would honestly claim that I'm a person who's just "alright." It's not a coincidence that the description I've laid out above has no fewer than, title included, eleven references to me (make that twelve). I'm affectionately referred to as "Ego." I think that last statement might have given away a tad too much. Welcome Aboard.
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