A lesson in the examination hall

It was my first exam in college as an undergrad. I had taken up English literature as my major, and in those days, the entire assessment was conducted through ‘final exams’ at the end of the academic year. I had worked hard through the year, preparing my notes, attending all the classes for the papers I was writing selectively, and had enjoyed the process. So, I found myself in a room full of classmates, reasonably confident that all would go ok.

The exam was three hours long, and the question paper was divided into two sections: three long questions of 20 marks each, and four short questions of 10 marks each. I chose which of the three long questions I wanted to answer (from four options, I think) and began to write my answer. As I filled sheets, I lost track of time, until I looked at my watch and realized to my horror that I had about an hour left and I was just midway through the second long question. I rushed through the second question and then the third question, my neat handwriting reduced to an untidy scrawl.

By this time, I had about half-hour left to answer 40% of the remaining paper. I froze in sheer fright.

What had I done?

There was a very real chance that I would flunk this paper. I couldn’t write, and I knew that I could retake the exam if I failed it, and that seemed to be a very real option. So I put my pen down and looked at the invigilator. As I prepared to get up, he came to my desk and said that I couldn’t leave until everyone was finished or the time was up, whichever happened first.

I was in a quandary. I couldn’t write and I couldn’t leave the room, so I put my head down on my desk, and found some tears welling up. But it would have been very embarrassing to break down in front of my classmates, so I just closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. After a few minutes, I felt a sense of calm descend on me out of the sheer helplessness, and also I have an odd sense of humor that came to my rescue at the ludicrous situation I was in, and that humorous voice asked me, “Well, you’re stuck here for another 30-odd minutes. Do you really intend to spend that time like this, with your head down on the desk? Really?”

Not really.

So, I opened my eyes, raised my head, picked up the pen, and decided to give it my best shot. What's the worse that could happen? If I flunked, at least I would flunk with a few more marks. But hopefully, I would scrape through.

In the next 30 minutes, I wrote steadily, with a single-minded focus on getting through as much of the paper as I could. When the invigilator called out that time was up, I put the pen down with badly cramped fingers but with a sense of something approaching happiness that I had at least tried my best. I had answered all the questions on the exam paper and the amazing thing was that my handwriting in those last thirty minutes was almost as neat as it had been in the first hour. It was as if the calm that I had discovered at that critical moment stayed with me and flowed through my fingers onto the paper. It was a pretty amazing feeling actually.

Well, I’d learnt my lesson. That day, when I went home and began to prepare for the next exam, one of the first things I did was to sit down and do some calculations about exactly how much time I should spend on each question, in order to make sure that I completed all my other papers properly and on time. The formula that I came up with was to devote 40 minutes to each 20 mark question and then 15 minutes each for the 10 mark questions, and to be completely strict with myself in the exam and not let myself deviate from the time plan (something very easy to do in an English lit paper).

I implemented my plan in the next paper, and to my satisfaction, it worked beautifully. Since I knew exactly how much time I had for each question, I planned the answers accordingly leaving enough time to wrap up my answers with good solid conclusions. In fact, the time plan worked so well that I stuck to it throughout the three years of my English lit studies. My handwriting would remain steadily neat throughout the paper and there were times when I would even have enough time at the end to comfortably tie up the answer sheets and supplementary sheets together, while people around me would be frantically trying to squeeze in a few more sentences in the last minute or so.

So, what happened with that first exam? Did I flunk it? Heck, no!

I topped that year, and then again the third year, and stood second in my class the second year. The first year, when the results came out, I was so flabbergasted when I saw my name up on the board that I refused to believe the first couple of minutes that I had actually scored the highest next marks in my college batch. Here I was, worried that I had failed or barely scraped through the first exam, and there my name was against the highest total. I’m sure someone up there was having a good laugh at my amazement. In fact, I was so amazed that I had a good laugh myself.

I know I wrote good answers. I loved my studies and had studied steadily through the year, and that always shows in the results. But I think what really helped my cause was also that my papers were probably easier to read and coherent. Also, I used only one or two supplementary sheets, so it was probably less onerous on the person checking the papers too.

In any case, that’s my guess. I was also studying German in the afternoons on campus, and I scored the highest marks in my batch there as well. It was all completely unexpected.

I’d been a good student in school, but my performance in exams sometimes left a lot to be desired. The only subject that I would score well in, independently, was English. For all other subjects, if I had a good teacher or tutor or help at home or if I was genuinely engaged in the content matter that particular year, I would score well. If not, well….let’s just say, I never actually failed any exam. I was all in all, an ‘average’ student in most subjects, except English where I excelled, and I worked very hard in 12th standard, and the boards’ exam results reflected that.

College was, therefore, a revelation to me. I discovered that when I truly enjoyed a subject and had good professors, I didn’t need too much guidance or supervision to perform well. In fact, exams never intimidated me to the same extent ever again. l also learned to become an independent student, a good steady learner, during those years. I had some wonderful instructors, some great friends, and college was a lot of fun while a lot of hard work at the same time. There was little opportunity for socialization outside the college (I think I saw maybe two movies with my classmates during those three years) as I was studying an extra subject in the afternoons and tutoring neighborhood kids in the evenings, but I made some lasting friendships over hundreds of cups of chai and plates of masala dosa and chowmein in the college canteens. I also discovered a renewed love for languages and learning, that was very helpful when I started my graduate studies in the U.S.

About twenty years later, as I set tests for my students, and grade their answer sheets, I can’t help but chuckle at my good fortune in that first exam in the first year of my undergraduate studies. If there hadn’t been a rule about students staying in the room until the end of the exam, and if my sense of humor hadn’t kicked in followed by that sense of calm, things may have turned out very differently for me.

Luckily, at least academically speaking, they turned out more than OK. So, the moral of the story? Never, ever give up, even when things look bleak. It's when you test your wings that you truly learn to fly. :)

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