Updated: Jul 17
I still remember my first MYE in TPJC. It was a H2 Math paper, invigilated by Mrs F. I recall it like it was yesterday. 2nd row, 2nd column, at 10am. 3 pages of question and as I embarked on the first question, I realized I couldn’t do the second.
But fortunately for me, I stuck to my Primary School Teacher’s advice.
“If you don’t know how to do a question, skip first!”
And so I did.
And I skipped.
Aaaand I skipped.
Nice, I’m done with the paper in 20 minutes.
Of course, that was the only exam that I could afford to pull such a joke on myself. I figured I have a bit of fun in JC during the “honeymoon” period. I never did that again.
For most of you sane students, you take your exams very seriously. Whether you prepared sufficiently or not, you at least dry-heaved 54 times prior to an exam like a pregnant woman on the morning after in front of the toilet bowl. Seniors would have told you by now that failing in your JC / Upper Secondary school years is common. But you can’t help but feel hurt by the score and that’s okay.
It’s okay to fail as long as you know what went wrong and how to fix it. The below are the 4 steps I usually take after a bad paper.
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Step 1: Have a good laugh
“I know, I know. I fucked up. So hard.”
I still recall telling the story of my H2 Math MYE paper to my tutor and he laughed with me too. I wasn’t the only one who failed. My clique of friends failed too and we started comparing what kind of word we can form with our grades.
It’s not that we do not care about our grades. (We actually tried our best and still failed). We laughed because we’ve all been there. Those who have taken a Secondary School National Exam would know that failing in internal school exams does not necessarily extrapolate into failure in the N/O/A levels. Very often, students fail because we don’t attach enough value to the school exams, resulting in procrastination of our work or just blatant negligence of studies.
Alternatively, failure could also occur due to the nature of learning itself. My Final Year Project (FYP) in NUS was based on pedagogy methods. (I hear you guys, that explains why I’m such a brilliant teacher) One of the research papers stated that learning occurs when cognitive dissonance is at play.
Imagine a lego set you’re trying to construct. In order to build that tower, you need pieces of matching grooves to come together. One by one, you try to mix and match. You match the first 2 pieces and then you have to repeat the process again to join 3 pieces and so on.
Cognitive Dissonance, boys and girls.
Very often, students struggle to put fitting lego pieces together especially in the transition year of Secondary 3 and JC1 where preceding concepts may be displaced by new concepts. This is cognitive dissonance. In learning, one struggles to connect the dots. You may be able to connect one dot but you struggle to get to the next.
It’s not that schools teach you the wrong things in your younger days. It is that we teach you a simplified model before we introduce the truth which tends to be more complicated. Ideally, a student should be able to see the connection, connect the dots and build on top of preceding ideas by the time the National Exams arrive.
Different students connect dots at different rate. As long as you are making progress and have some part of your lego tower constructed, don’t worry and keep going. The more struggle you encounter, the more cognitive dissonance you experience, the more you will learn.
Step 2: Analyse your paper in detail
After the laughs died down, it was time to face reality. We failed and we needed to work harder. Personally, the worst part of failing a paper is not the marks but actually the mistakes that cost you your marks. The excruciating pain of failing only hits me when I look at my embarrassing mistakes. The realization of how easy the question actually was if I made that one connection during my revision (which didn’t happen, hurhur).
Sorry, it was supposed to be a gallery of failed exam papers. But hardly any of my students fail.
We’ve all been there. Failed a paper, looked at our marks, some asshole friend of yours would come over to compare marks in order to get a gauge of where he/she stands. Teacher goes through answer and you realized just how terrible your mistakes were. And occasionally, you start to question your own intelligence and if you are on the right path. (Yes, I read reddit SGExam and all the repetition of crying post)
Most of us need to understand failure is a good thing. (失败是成功之母) Failure keeps us humble enough to listen attentively in class. Failure evokes emotions of embarrassments that aids us in remembering that moment. Failure motivates us. Failure brings out the best of us.
I will motivate you with my stories as far as I can.
But ultimately, you are the one dribbling on the court, not me.
I remember some of the most embarrassing mistakes I made in school exams even till this day. It helps me remember concepts and the precise learning point I needed to extract from that particular question. Take a hard look at your paper, know exactly the mistake you made and take it on the chin. That impact of the epiphany would navigate you through your cognitive dissonance.
Step 3: Design your battle plan
By this point, you should know exactly what and how things went wrong. Get your notebook out and start noting down the chapters and, if possible the exact reason why you messed up in that chapter. Once you have completed the list, look at the list on a macro level and have a rough timeline in mind.
List out clearly how long you are going to take to fix that chapter and when you are going to do it, or at least, when you will fix it by. Some chapters such as Calculus in Math are interlinked with what you are learning subsequently. My advice is clarify your doubts with teachers or classmates who did better than you as soon as possible. You don’t want to deviate further and further in terms of knowledge as more dots start appearing for you to connect.
Whereas other topics such as Periodicity in Chemistry are rather isolated and limited in scope in terms of extrapolation of preceding knowledge. In such cases, you can put that aside first and prioritize revising on interlinked topics. But ultimately, you will have to come back to it and your list will serve as a reminder.
Step 4: Engage a tutor
Point blank, few of you would spring out of your chair and take immediate action. You always have something else that is more important than sorting out your academics. Others would claim they lack motivation. While the rest of you genuinely don’t know where to start.
Ultimately whatever I’ve mentioned in this article can be done with your school teacher. JC teachers are known to be slightly more distant compared to primary and secondary school teachers. There are genuinely caring teachers who would help you out. Whereas others, you could feel the distant and therefore are not comfortable approaching them.
This is why good private tutors are valued highly for their time. I’ve always pride myself in creating a personal relationship with my students. Knowledge and skills in the subject is important but ability to communicate on an emotional level is equally imperative.
Beyond helping students create cognitive dissonance and connect the dots, tutors like myself also act as your Aunt Agony. Students in upper secondary and JC are usually under high pressure to perform and they see no outlet for their emotions. (Hence the ever so frequent cry for help on reddit.) Past and current students know the vibe I create during the session. We always have a good laugh before we get down to work.
We all used to cry like that as toddlers. Admit it.
When my students fail their exams, I always ask for their paper. Not necessarily to take pictures and boast about them in a shallow ploy to get more students, (believe me, I have more than enough) but rather to analyse the topics they are weak in and formulate the precise list I mentioned in this article.
We discuss what when wrong, whether the paper was fair, what a fair score is for the student population in general and why she didn’t perform. Simultaneously, mentally, I’ve already noted down where their weakness is, roughly condense a timeline in my head and finally execute the plan when I deem fit.
A good tutor would have all this done for you at some level. You just have to follow through with the plan and trust the process. However, a brilliant tutor like me would go beyond whatever I listed.
I will also laugh with (at) your grades first.
Funny as a child but incredibly relatable as a student.