On exams

Finished my finals today and thought about dumping some thoughts on exams.

In Malaysia, there's this big test at the end of senior year of high school that everyone (in the national curriculum) takes before entering college. It's called Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), or the Malaysian Certificate of Education.

I took 10 subjects in the examination, and I remember the insane amount of effort that went into it. Our teachers for each course would provide past year papers with the answers, and our objective was to complete all of them.

I had fun doing them, but it was a complete waste of time and energy. Instead of learning a useful skill, I was learning how to solve for x, without thinking why I had to solve for x in the first place.

I did the exams, I got straight As, but what did I achieve? Was I just supposed to be this machine that was fed all that information and dump it all out?

Now that I'm in university, I still feel that way about exams. But with more appreciation about both the good and bad of exams.

What I like about exams:

  • studying with friends, going through something difficult together bonds us
  • a good way to make new friends, sharing practice questions, teaching them
  • teaches you how to consume and compress a lot of information in a short time
  • tests your understanding, but dependent on how much effort and care the lecture puts into making the questions
  • exam feels like a search problem, where the potential questions are a subset of the possible information covered in the course, also feels game theory like where you try to predict what kind of questions would the professor test us on.
  • as I take higher level classes, my exams has overlapping concepts, and I start to realize how the puzzle pieces connect together.

What I don't like about exams:

  • doing well gives me false idea of knowing the content. I can get an A in the class but still not be able to really understand what's going on
  • puts me on a number line, directly comparing me with others, getting bad grades makes me feel like a failure.
  • anxiety-inducing and high pressure, my parents are paying a lot of money take courses as an international student, so I'm pressured to do well.
  • you're working in a vacuum and forced to work with what you have in your head, without any access to resources, which is unrealistic in the real-world.

What I've learned:

  • I forget a lot from my previous classes because I don't apply information I've learned
  • I don't understand a class because I didn't seek to understand it in the first place, necessity is the impetus for learning, and I could never connect the information in my classes to something I can practically use at the time I was learning it.
  • I overthink a lot in exams, and when I overthink, I tend to change my mind about answers that were already correct, so I should pay attention to my first intuitions more.
  • the belief that you're not good at something is powerful, my inner thoughts when I face a problem I can't solve is "I don't know this", "I'm screwed", and it makes me give up really fast, clouds my judgement, and turns an easy problem into a complex one.