Archive for the ‘Exams’ Category

I’ve been thinking about posting this TED talk that I watched recently and with the release of the ‘A’ level results last Friday, it has given me greater impetus to do so since results day often bring with it an upswell of emotions that gets me thinking about what truly brings us happiness? Yes, when you see me standing in the corner staring into space like I’m not doing any real work, I’m actually pontificating on philosophical stuff like that. Okay…sometimes I’m really just spacing out and taking a mental vacation. ANYWAYS, it got me thinking if good ‘A’ level results truly brings us happiness in life? Like what we’ve seen on the faces of students who did well? Or conversely, do less than ideal ‘A’ level results condemn us to a life of gloom and doom?

What I found fascinating about Professor Robert Waldinger’s study, which he talked about in this TED talk, is that when they followed two groups of men – one group from Harvard and the other group from the Boston’s poorest neighbourhood over the past 75 years, at the end of the day they found that happiness was not found in fame or wealth or a successful career or the fact that you’re a Harvard graduate versus a non-graduate. Which MAY come as a surprise to many of us, given that I’ve heard students describe NUS/SMU/NTU like they are some sort of promised land full of green green grass and the sound of music. Research has shown that it’s time for us to look beyond grades and what school we go to and recognize that life is rarely a linear progression i.e. the equation that Good ‘A’ level results = go to the NUS/SMU/NTU promised land = great career with great pay = secure future and happy family = life’s sweet sweet goal is seldom a sure thing and conversely bad ‘A’ level results = I’m screwed forever is also rarely the case. Because life is so much more complicated, convulated, unpredictable and non-linear than that and I’m glad it’s that way. Otherwise life would be so boring, wouldn’t it?

Have a read at this other blog post ‘the cost of our college obsession’ (maybe just the top half of the post since it’s a really long one) on why we have to look beyond grades. Something for us to think about this March holidays. Have a good term break. 🙂

Going beyond grades: Why we HAVE to do better.

Source: The Cost of Our College Obsession

The final push

Posted: October 19, 2015 in Exams, Motivation, Resilience

Dear JC2 students,

This morning as I was walking across the quadrangle, I looked up and noticed the count down chart that said A level exams is 17 days away. I can’t believe how much time has gone by! Some of you, right now, may feel more prepared than others; some of you may have been chewing through your nails; and some of you may already be making plans to repeat next year cos you feel like there’s just no way you can be ready in time. Whichever the case, this IS the final lap and I wanted to wish you well. I’ve met all of you at the resilience workshop this year and hope that some of the stuff that your teachers and I have shared will support you in this time. A couple of students have requested that I put up the story of the alumni student I talked about during the workshop, so here it is.


That was way back in 2012 and I just liked the story so much because it speaks so much truth. It IS true that YJC students are deemed the underdogs and it IS also true that that doesn’t make anything impossible if you work hard. That was the whole tenet of the workshop, really, that hard work is one of the strongest predictor for success. When things work out for you, I hope that you’d write back to me and let me know your story as well, so I can use it to encourage your juniors. When, not if.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope’. Whatever disappointments or setbacks you may have encountered up to this point that makes you feel like you are not good enough, or that you can’t, don’t let that trip you up and keep on going, keep on hoping. 🙂

Ms Joan

The preliminary exams are in full swing (well…actually it’s ending soon) and the rest of you who are not doing prelims are busy getting your Project Work in order and panicking that promos is 30 odd days away. I thought it’s timely to re-post some of the stuff I’ve written before to deal with this difficult period. Why reinvent the wheel when it’s already pretty awesome? haha. Talk about being shameless.

If you’ve been feeling super fatigued and dragged your feet to school this morning, check out the post I wrote where I shared your sentiments and also shared some tips on recharging yourself. If you’re needing practical handlers on managing your anxiety in an exam situation, then check out this post on calming and focusing yourself. If you’ve been procrastinating like crazy and feeling guilty and scared cos the clock doesn’t stop ticking for the procrastinator, check out Peter Bergman’s time management tips. Lastly, I really think some people need to be more okay with seeking help or talking things out (i.e. with a teacher or with me or with any number of the counselling helplines/centres out there). Even when you feel like you can’t quite put words to what you’re feeling yet. Check out a post I wrote on this some time ago. 

On another note, I’ve been wanting to write something about mental health and suicide after the news on Robin Williams last week (was it last week?). I grew up watching his shows and was very saddened by the news, but try as I might I couldn’t put words together in a way that I felt respected the life that he led and didn’t sound like yet another article that sensationalized the whole thing, and at the same time helps us to look squarely in the face of something like suicide and talk about it with honesty and openness. You can see why I was having such difficulty writing about it! In any case, I shall endeavor to do so soon. But suffice it to say that if any of you reading this now have been feeling like there’s no other way out apart from taking your own life please do come and talk about it. Or call Samaritans of Singapore at 1800 221 4444 or drop them an email at 

ID-10052826I like to sleep. Alot. It has always been this way from when I was in primary school right up to now. Someone once told me that when you get older, you need less sleep. Not me. 9 hours of sleep is barely sufficient for me. In university I stayed at the dorm and I was sleeping alot of the time even during the exam period. My room mate was one who would make 3 packets of 3 in 1 coffee in a single mug to stay awake. Me? I study for awhile then I sleep. And sleep. And sleep. It irritated my room mate to no end because I always ended up doing better than her in the exams. She can’t, for the life of her, understand how it is that I sleep so much (and therefore spend much less time revising compared to her) and still do better than her. I didn’t understand that myself. I thought maybe I was a genius…haha…which obviously didn’t help our friendship. Until I discovered neuroscience, the study of how our brain works, then I realized that I’m no genius. I just happened to have stumbled on that one key thing which helps students to do better in school – SLEEP.

Neuroscientists have discovered that sleep helps with learning and memory and that successful students tend to sleep more. I previously wrote about how repetition helps with memory and the connection between short term memory (STM or the stuff we forget quickly) and long term memory (LTM or the stuff that sticks). Turns out, sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation!

You and I both know that as a student, one of the most important brain functions you would need is memory. As a student, you probably rely on that brain function more than anything else, especially if you take history!! You and I also know that many students think sleep is a luxury. One of the students I recently talked to logically deduced that since he wakes up feeling tired whether he sleeps early or late, then he might as well sleep late and spend that extra time doing his school work. Sounds logical if you didn’t already know about the concept of sleep debt which I’ll talk about in another post.

Neuroscientists performed a number of research on subjects who were randomly grouped into two groups, Group A and B. Both groups were asked to memorize a simple mathematical formula and then after another 30 minutes they were asked to memorize another mathematical formula. Group B was given a nap in between of about 15 minutes while group A was not allowed to nap. They then used a fancy machine to do brain imaging on both groups and found that the nap group (group B) had completed the shift from STM to LTM. Meaning, that the formula they memorized has successfully shifted to a place in their brain where they will remember it for a long time and is therefore able to retrieve that information if they were to say sit for a maths test the following week. That, compared to the group that didn’t nap (group A) and therefore is more likely to forget the information the next day.

So what does this all mean? If you are trying to memorize something really important, take a short nap after you’ve memorized it. What?! Sounds so counter intuitive. But that’s what neuroscience has proven. Sometimes the best way to remember stuff is to sleep on it. Over and over again, experts in the field have pointed out that you can’t pull an all-nighter and still learn (or remember) effectively. That’s why we feel tired after a full day of school. We learned so much stuff in school our brain is screaming out for us to sleep so that it can do its job properly – consolidating stuff and shifting material from STM to LTM. When we don’t sleep, our brain can’t do its job, and we so so need our brain to do its job.

So this September holidays, treat yourself right. Sleep on.

Sometimes when we get stuck on a question in the exams, we start having ‘runaway thoughts’ like “I’m going to fail this entire exam, I should have prepared for this topic instead of the other one, I’m so stupid, why didn’t I study harder?” etc etc. Sounds familiar to you? Sometimes we’re able to shrug it off and continue to focus on the exam. For some people, however, these negative thoughts continue to run over and over in their minds, resulting in greater anxiety as the clock continues to tick away.

A technique that some people have found useful when this happens is to literally tell yourself to STOP! Mentally shout STOP IT! to yourself or picture a STOP sign in your head to stop these thoughts from spiralling downwards even further. When I find unwelcome thoughts in my head, I sometimes picture a door and I shove all the unwanted thoughts out the door and literally slam the door on them! It helps to then take a few deep breaths and then go back to your exam paper.

Some people have also found it helpful to wear a rubber band around their wrist and to pull lightly on the rubber band when they get caught in runaway negative thoughts while saying ‘stop it’ at the same time. What this does is to create a mild sort of pain which helps to snap you back into reality and bring your attention back to your exam paper. Don’t pull too hard on the rubber band cos it’s not supposed to be some kind of ‘punishment’. Just a light tug will do the trick. So if you know you’re the kind who tends to flood yourself with negative thoughts during an exam, you can give the above techniques a shot and see if it works for you. Again, practice these techniques 10-12 times if you can before the exam itself so you can train your brain to respond to it accordingly.

Exams are literally right round the corner. I know many of you out there are wringing your hands and cramming as much information as possible in these last few days and weeks and guilt-tripping yourself for going online and checking FB and thinking maybe if you’re reading the counsellor’s blog then it’s not SUCH a bad thing, right? Well it most certainly is not cos today I’m going to share a technique that all of you can use for calming and focusing yourself when you freak out. 

The ability to calm yourself down and refocus in times of distress is one of the 7 key traits that resilient people possess, according to the authors of this bestselling book ‘The Resilience Factor’. I think I talked about debating with your negative thoughts, finding evidence for your distorted thinking etc before somewhere in the blog. In an exam situation, however, there really isn’t much time for this cognitive debate and that’s where calming and focusing comes in really useful. There are several different techniques you can try to calm yourself down and refocus and I’ll write about one technique a day so you can try the different ones and see which one works better for you.
The most scientifically researched and widely used way to calm and refocus is *drum roll* rhythmic breathing. We all naturally breathe rhythmically (at least I hope you do!) which is why we are of sound mind most of the time. Faced with a high stress situation, however, our breathing is often compromised. Scientists have researched and found that a 10 second breathing cycle works to activate our parasympathetic nervous system which basically tells our brain that there is no immediate threat and to calm down so you can think straight.
Without going too much into the theory, try this where you are now:-
1. Sit back in your chair and close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breathing. Take 2 or 3 ‘normal breaths’ and relax your shoulders.
2. On your next inhale, count slowly to yourself “one…two…three…four…”, filling your lungs with air and letting your abdomen push out naturally. Remember to keep your shoulders relaxed and breathe in through your nose.
3. On your exhale, count slowly again “one…two…three…four…five…six…” again keeping your shoulders relaxed and breathe out through your mouth.
4. Do this 10 times (or more if you want to) and then take 2 or 3 ‘normal breaths’ again. Open your eyes and continue with what you were doing.
Remember to pace your breathing so you don’t take all the air in at ‘one’ or release all the air at one go. It’s more about prolonged breathing than taking in as much air as you can at one shot. This simple exercise would only take you about 2 minutes so it’s something you can do before the invigilator says ‘you may start’ and in between when you feel stuck and panicked. Practice this several times before you step into the exam hall so it becomes second nature and takes the guess work out of it. Or come look for me at the counselling room and we can practice it together. 🙂
Image used with permission from Arvind Balaraman

After writing part I of this motivation series, I took a walk around school and saw a particular student (also in J2) who came to see me three weeks ago. Let’s call her S. Seeing her compelled me to quickly write another post as follow-up to the first one where I encouraged you to remind yourself about what you’re studying for. When I asked S that question, she couldn’t come up with any answer. She had no idea what course she would do in university (if she gets into uni). She doesn’t even know if she would want to get into uni in the first place. Needless to say, she doesn’t know what A’levels mean to her. Everyone around her tells her that it’s important for her to do well but as exams draw nearer and stress levels became higher, she started wondering what was the purpose of the whole thing anyway. Like M, she wanted to throw in the towel.

During the counselling session, I tried to explore different alternatives with her and see what her interests and passion are, hoping to do what I did with M. Nothing really cliqued until we discussed the fact that S had been in YJC for 3 years (S repeated J1). Now 3 years feels like a long time when you are 19 years old and it hasn’t been an easy 3 years with exams, time trials, homework etc etc. S realized that if she threw in the towel now, she would have wasted 3 years of her youth. She wanted to at least have something to show for all the time that she invested in the A’levels course. In short, she wanted to finish it off in style. Somehow when she focused on the here and now, instead of thinking about a vague and unpredictable future, S managed to find her motivation to work and put her best foot forward now. When I saw her in school today, she was studying with a group of friends.

So I suppose when we don’t know what we’re doing this for and when the future seems unpromising and unhopeful, we could still pick ourselves up and focus on the here and now and perhaps find our motivation somehow.