Post-exam warbles

It’s just over a week since I took the Quantum World exam and about three weeks since I took the Physical World exam that I’d deferred from last year. Assuming I’ve passed (and I probably shouldn’t assume, but I hope) then I’ll have banked another 90 credits for my BSc with the Open University.

I wanted to set aside a few thoughts before summer sweeps me away, both as a record for myself and in case they are of any interest to other learners.

These courses are graded entirely on a three-hour pen and paper test, most of which is quantitative problem-solving.  I have taken two exams with the OU prior to this, and both times I was horrified at how badly I came unglued, both during the revision period and in the exam itself.  I came unglued in revision because although I’d been doing well throughout the year, I hadn’t retained much and had to do a lot of relearning. There wasn’t enough time for this even when I started early. I came unglued in the exam because I was unprepared psychologically for the brain freeze of exam pressure. Nine months at my kitchen table couldn’t get me ready for three hours in an exam room.

This year I was determined to do better. Was I successful? I can’t say until marks come out, but subjectively the exams felt different this time. So I’d like to make note of what I did differently this time.

First of all, I didn’t try as hard on continuous assessment. On the QM course I didn’t aim for honours marks on assignments; I did what I could do while remaining ahead of the study calendar, and I got good marks but not great ones. In this way I was able to maintain a two-week head start throughout the year, and this was very much needed at revision time.

Surprisingly, in S207 I had to study large tracts of the course again. Either I had forgotten them or I hadn’t covered them properly last year (again, despite high marks on continuous assessment). This took a big chunk of time every week, sadly, but I have to say that I benefitted a lot from revisiting the course; if I were allowed to do it again in an ideal world, I probably would. It’s a big course and for me it needed going over more than once to start to make sense.  Even so, when revision time came I felt panicky and overwhelmed. The first few past papers I looked at were terrifying. I didn’t start to feel any confidence at all until the last few days before the exam.

In the QM course I felt over my head from day one and this never changed. I worked very hard. I understood some of it. My maths improved enormously. In the last eight days before the exam I worked harder than I have ever worked at anything. I went at it with everything I had. I dreamed in Dirac notation and volume integrals. Apparently during those brief interludes when I emerged from my study cave, I walked around in an unresponsive daze with unfocused eyes. I remember my kids giving me random hugs and Steve keeping me supplied with hot ready-meals every night. When it all got too much I watched episodes of Damages on Netflix, but even that was too mentally demanding by the end.

All of this has been a journey. When I first started with the OU my youngest was not yet potty trained and was still breastfeeding. My attention was continually being snatched and nibbled. My concentration was shite. I struggled to prioritize all of the demands that come in from all sides, all the time. Now, though? I’ve learned to ruthlessly cut out so much stuff. Even more than for novel deadlines. Kids and Steve have adapted to what I’m doing, they’re behind me, and I can disappear from the world. It’s very intense. When I’m studying the material is so demanding that I feel inadequate and unequal and bumbling every single day, but I’ve been in there doing it anyway and it has put some edges back on my brain.

I used a self-hypnosis recording. At first it freaked me out. The hypnotist guides you into this relaxed state, you imagine yourself lying in your bed and you go down an elevator to your special room…and then it turns into an exam room. When I first listened to it I almost jolted awake in horror. But after a couple of weeks I do think the suggestions sank in and I was much calmer in the exam.

In my first OU exam in 2012 I was trying so hard to be careful and perfect and check everything that I ran out of time. Last year I rushed so much that I had to go back and rework, and ended up losing even more time. This time, I took advantage of Wyatt Earp’s quotation, ‘Take your time in a hurry.’ I stole this from Steve, who blogged about it years ago in a fighting context. 

I also asked Steve for more general advice on managing panic. In exams, my heart races like I’m running flat out. For three hours. When I took the S207 exam on 1 June, I was so pumped up that I was reading questions without reading them. The words were not going in. I eventually mastered myself, but it was disconcerting.  I told Steve and he advised me to fix my gaze. He told me about the concept of the ‘quiet eye’ and told me to pick a spot and focus on it. ‘Forget controlling your breathing,’ he said. ‘Control your eye.’

So I picked a spot on the ceiling and in the last few minutes before the exam started, while everyone was sitting there waiting (the guy in front of me was visibly twitching and jerking), I stared at this spot. Whenever I got a little rattled, I returned to the spot. It’s a simple trick, but it works.

The QM exam was difficult. There were some curve balls. There were a couple of places where I just blanked out—simple things that I know how to do, but forgot. I was able to shrug and move on, do what I could. I don’t know what my marks will be like. Maybe I will take QM again if it’s a bad grade. But I do know that I worked hard all year, I worked harder still in the weeks since Easter, I worked like a fucking demon from mid-May onward, and I gave the exam everything I had. I had nothing left when it was over.

So many people have encouraged me, old friends and family and new friends and fellow students, that I had to give it everything. I’m beyond grateful to have the opportunity to learn this stuff, to have a chance at a new career path at this stage of my life, and I couldn’t have got this far without so much support and goodwill.

So thanks to everyone who is still with me. You keep me going.