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Mr Chen's anecdotes.


Updated: Feb 3, 2022

I never cared about my results.

As much as I look like a nerd back in school, I never did more than I should. I did my daily homework and submitted them punctually. However, I never went the extra mile. It didn't bother me that I was just an average student. I just wanted to live a content life. Some people are eager to critique me as someone who just gets by in life (得过且过) or while I see my perspective of life more appropriately as 知足常乐.

It was not until one day, I was on my way home when my childhood friend and I were casually discussing our prospects. I proudly declared that I wanted to enter Law and he said

"That’s not very realistic. You need straight A’s!"

At that moment, I laughed it off.

But really, have we met?

I always knew I'm better than most, if not, everyone around me.

More importantly, the conversation also made me realise how important the A level is. If I mess this up, my tertiary education fees are going to cost significantly more. In other words, less inheritance for me.

Fuck me. I’m going to demolish the A level exams.

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Your prelim results are going to matter less than you think.

There are generally 2 reactions to prelim results.

The first, you would have probably seen on reddit. The one who makes a mountain out of a mole hill. If they did well, they "low key" celebrate and claim to worry that they can’t do well for A levels because they barely made the 70%. Somehow. Whereas the converse, would go onto reddit to seek advice and down vote any post that seem to direct them to reality or against their alternate universe of a reality in Wonderland.

Exhibit A.

Most of us would have taken at least 2 prelim exams by the time we enter Junior College. Experiences may differ from one individual to another. However, all these experiences have 1 common denominator.

The prelim results have absolutely no impact on your final results.

However, this is not suggesting that your prelim results is meaningless. The other extreme end of the spectrum would be those who failed their prelims, claims it is meaningless and proceed to attempt a twist of fate by becoming the top scorer. (Most don’t pull that off. Prove me wrong.)

My impression of Redditors on r/SGExam when they see constructive criticism.

Personally, prelim papers were merely proxies for me to examine my performance under pressure and determine if my preparation methodology was working for me. Different schools have different goals for their prelim papers.

Some are out for blood. Some are out to motivate through fear. While others just want to set a paper close to A level standard to gauge who really needs help. In other words, your prelim results will carry a different meaning for you depending on the school. It is therefore, important for you to be objective about your prelim results.

In general, if you score C and above, you are likely to be on your way to finishing the race with a respectable timing. However, if you’re failing, take a hard look at your paper. Be critical. Be realistic. Identify where you drifted off track and consider taking a different approach for your preparation.

As a student and as a tutor, prelim papers are also for me to extract good questions with intelligent questioning or interesting application of concepts. Those are the questions that I will review and discuss intensively with my students in depth. Questions that are deemed unfair, I wouldn’t bat an eye.

It's time to switch gears.

Einstein famously said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

Everybody has a different approach to studying. Most would just dive head first into practice paper and they would experience varying success. For those who adopted my method and showed significant improvements…

"From 20th percentile to 50th percentile" - She said

However, it is time for you to switch things up. Topical revision is great for small skirmishes. Now that you’ve scored a C and above, it generally means that you have a good grasp of concept and marks were likely loss due to amalgamation and application of key ideas in different context. Pick out practice papers based off recommendations from me or your school teachers.

However, instead of attempting it like a full on exam paper where you sit through 3 hours of arduous work, finish the paper in sections. When I felt helpless after my disastrous H2 Economics MYE results, I knew notes writing wasn’t working.

I took a long hard look at my mistakes and I analysed them for hours. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the concept (most people claim economics is just common sense) but rather, I was writing an essay based on model essays and memory. The problem wasn’t content, it was application.

I did the next best thing. Practice.

I went to the school bookshop and bought the 2009 prelim package along with an aesthetically pleasing notepad. Every night, after dinner, without fail, I would set aside 45 minutes (time is inclusive of question selection) and just complete either a Case Study (CSQ) or a full 25 marks essay question. I refused to look at my notes while practising or extend my timing even if my work was half done.

Sitting through an entire 3 hour paper is not necessary being efficient with your time. We have multiple subjects to study for and it unlikely that you can sustain the same energy for every subject through the day. Something has to give.

I knew my method is going to work for one key reason. Consistency.

People around me were doing 3 hours practice paper in one seating and rotating the subject on a daily basis. Yours truly, on the other hand, was doing all my core subjects on a daily basis with equal amount of effort while sustaining a relatively consistent amount of energy for every subject and keeping to exam conditions albeit at a portion. On days where I feel I had more to give after my mini skirmishes, I would do a full practice paper.

I remember there was one particular school answer key which was just a one liner.

The image of that page is still etched in my head but I can't find it in this 300 odd pages.

Eventually, you will build stamina and get used to the restriction of an exam paper based on time to marks ratio allocation. Beyond a threshold of stamina, you will feel ready to take on practice papers for all your subjects daily, ideally towards the study break.

Practice isn’t enough.

My consistency and hard work is only part of the reason behind my success. Let’s be real, everyone is doing some form of practice. However, not everyone scores an A.

No, don’t be rude.

People around me back then were stupid but not that stupid.

"Can you believe this guy?"

I have been asked many a time by my students to mark their paper. Or simply solve their question for them. I’ve always said no. Very often, I am misunderstood to be selfish.

I am doing you no favor by doing your question or marking that paper for you. I am indirectly creating a sense of reliance in you on me. I will guide you by asking you the right questions that will direct you towards the answer. However, you must be able to develop a sense of independent learning and problem solving because ultimately, I’m not in the exam hall with you.

Take a closer look at my notepad. Apart from the usual scribblings that I mentioned in the previous blog article, I marked my own Economics essay. My student asked me how I marked my own economics essay especially when the answers back then was not from the original source (i.e. the school) but rather a watered down version edited by the school of origin.


Look at all the small comments I had written as part of my self marking process.

I had to spend another 15 minutes beyond just looking at the correct answers. I had to learn to decide if my answer was good enough compared to the model answers’ outline. I had to rationalize and really deliberate whether my answer deserved a L2 or L3. I had to consider the potential that my answer is an alternative answer that is accepted. I had to be an open minded yet harsh self-critic. When you can do that as a student, you are your own tutor.

There will be times where you cannot decide if your answer is good enough. There would also be occasions where you feel the answer is wrong and questionable (One of the top tier JC used to release wrong detailed answers for their chemistry answer keys) while yours is justified. This is when you consult your teachers or your tutor. You don’t go to an authoritative figure to demand the model answer or identify your mistake in a sea of words or mathematical equations.

"Mark my practice paper for me please!"

In fact, just gifting the answer to you is the easiest job for me. I could just do it for you and flick you off shortly after. However, my students know whenever I pick out interesting questions to attempt, I always have questions for them. Especially, when they have no questions for me. I will probe and poke at your understanding by asking questions that will leave your jaw hanging. This is the same feeling you will get when you have no model answers in front of you and yet the question is unique and unforeseen. I am training you to extrapolate from foundational concepts towards more advanced concepts. Am I trying to confuse you?

Yes. I am trying to create cognitive dissonance.

This really did happen during one of my recent session.

You will experience this same confusion in your exams. It will happen. However, I always know if my answer is correct precisely because of that extra 15 minutes spent. I learnt to justify my answer even if the answers looked weird. I learnt to stand by my answers even when the question is unprecedented in all practice papers because I was able to reduce the question back to its roots. I knew exactly what is expected of me and what is unnecessary in a typical question.

I still remember how my H2 Economics Paper went. It was an afternoon paper which started at 2pm. I did my essays without stopping to check for time. I could feel I was on track. By the time I was done, I looked up at the clock, barely 6 tables diagonally away from me. 3:58pm.

I had 17 minutes left.

Easiest A of my life.

But oh no, it gets better. Not only did I have a similar outcome for my other H2 Subjects, my obsession with Economics spilled over to my tertiary education. I did my bare minimum in University. I was back to my usual self of just living content and enjoying whatever life throws at me. I was often going home late due to CCA commitments. In my 2nd semester, I decided to take EC1301 in NUS, an Economics module that is an extrapolation from A levels syllabus.

There was a MCQ mid term test, upon 50. In NUS, results are released on the online portal with full disclosure of your marks, median marks and average marks. Median and average was 32/50. Yours truly scored 42/50. No prizes for guessing my final grade.

Teachers always say "ask intelligent questions". The questions I ask are the very intelligent questions they refer to. Challenge yourself, your teachers, your tutors and me. Put forth your idea and defend it. Poke holes in the model answer. It will be uncomfortable because it is part of the process of seeking the truth. When you consult me, you are looking to be convinced, not to be told.

I work hard, not smart.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I absolutely abhor the typical mantra of "Work smart, not hard". I've always leaned towards the typically scorned upon spectrum. I’ve always been a hard worker. The hardest worker in the room. The hardest worker in the platoon. The hardest worker amongst my peers. Working smart, from my perspective, is just a pathetic pretext for being lazy while subtly bragging about their amazing imagined time management skills.

That extra 15 minutes is not smart. It is hard work. It is discipline. Look around you. How many of your peers actually do a self review of the answer in as much depth as I have described? How many of your peers actually use consultations the way I described? How many of your peers actually directed questions that are similar to what I ask of you?

It takes time, dedicated time, to deliberate over your work and not just mark it as a correct or wrong and moving on shortly after. It takes effort and emotional resilience to admit to your mistakes or show your hand to your teachers in regards to your understanding and potentially be embarrassed after. No two ways about it. This takes grit.

My "sword" & "steed"

True, some people will eventually internalize ideas, despite without fully understanding the problem at hand, simply by raw practice and running into similar questions again. This will work in school. This will work today. This will get you your grades.

Unfortunately for you, your learning stops when you enter adulthood. Life. Even before that, in University where practice resources are scarce, some of you will struggle already. In life, there are no Ten-Year Series. There are no model answers. There are no practice papers for you to trip over and over before you learn to side step the pebble. You must identify your core understanding and values towards the outside world. Stick by it. Defend it. Don’t falter.

To my graduating students, I have always given my best to you. There are times when I am as confused as you are. But deep down, we know, once I figure this shit out, I will get you on my path of thinking. Whatever I know, I have given to you. Nothing held back.

As you take off from under my wings, I genuinely hope you surpass me in the future and teach me something beyond my realm of understanding.

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