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a moment of burnt hat

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So drained I forgot to title this post

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I have a lot of processing to do after the math exam so I’m putting this very long post behind a cut.

I’ve been studying for this exam to the exclusion of all else for over three weeks. I found the course really difficult, and although I went into the exam with a 96 average, as soon as I began revising (that’s ‘reviewing’ in USian) I realised that a lot of what we’d studied hadn’t sunk in. I had to go back and relearn a lot of the material from scratch. Then it was a case of busting my butt working on past exam papers, two of which I did under mock test conditions.  The first time I scored in the 40s, which was a rude shock, and the second time a few days ago I came in at about 70%.

This all made me quite tearful. My first instinct was to blame the curriculum. You spend nine months teaching yourself maths from books that are often less than crystal clear.  (I had to resort to online tutorials and other books on several occasions, and there were only four tutorials for the whole course.) The assignments are graded, but these grades don’t actually count toward your final result in a real sense; for example, I was aiming for a distinction (equivalent of an A in US) but the only way to achieve this is through a high score in the exam. There are no interim tests to give you an idea of what an exam will feel like or how well you are performing, and assignment marks can apparently be misleading. So I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling very low about myself and frustrated because if I’d known I wasn’t doing enough over that nine month period I might have been able to do more.

My second reaction was to blame myself.  I’ve somehow failed to learn as I should have learned.

I studied hard in the limited time I had left.  The day before the exam I picked up a tummy bug off one of the kids, who was home with the same thing, and the last 24 hours before the test were a bit of a misery compounded by lack of sleep. I was worried at one point that I wasn’t going to be able to physically get through the exam, but luckily the tummy was mostly cleared up in the morning.


The exam was held in a hotel in Telford.  There were other courses having their tests in the same room at the same time, but no one seemed to know each other. We were herded into this anteroom to wait to be admitted to the exam. I got chatting to one guy on my course. After we were talking for about a minute he admitted he already had a degree in Mechanical Engineering. WTF? Then, this twenty-something guy overheard the phrase ‘Taylor series’ and came over to say hi.  Guess what? He had a Physics degree from a bricks and mortar uni!


I’m like, yo, I have a Music Program Zero degree from 22 years ago and I’m supposed to compete against you math people?!?!  Fucking save me.

I then went to the toilet but didn’t puke! Miraculously.

When I came back everyone was sitting quietly like lambs to the slaughter, except for one white-haired man with a booming voice who was chatting away to his neighbour as if we were all on a coach to bingo night. I found an empty corner from which to watch people. The women were well-groomed and exchanged the odd friendly smile. The men didn’t look at one another. Nobody moved. I thought, I’m going to be sitting at a desk for three hours.  I’m standing up while I can.  So I started stretching out just a little, unobtrusively I hope, in the corner. If everyone else hadn’t been so uptight and silent I’d probably have started bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet to get rid of some energy.  There was a coat rack in the corner and I had the urge to shadow-fight with it.

I found those waiting minutes very emotional.  I was wearing Rochita’s necklace for luck, and I had a good-luck card from Chris and Pat in my bag, and I had convinced myself that this test was The Most Important Thing Ever.  I found myself blotting my eyes, thinking of everyone who has encouraged me in this venture. In all truth I think I was calmer going into childbirth.

The Chief Invigilator came out and hooted some instructions at us all in a manner that suggested we were idiots and also, possibly, anarchists.  I couldn’t help but laugh quietly at her.  People turned and looked at me.  My goodness. What a serious lot.

Luckily the other two invigilators were lovely, quiet, helpful people. The Chief Invigilator bullied them, though.


Then we had the test.  I read through it and was pleasantly surprised that most of it looked fine.  I circled the bits that looked troublesome, including one heinous piece of integration by backward substitution that I never did crack.  Then I set off. I was so nervous I was questioning every single move I made.  I looked up and half an hour had gone by, and I was behind where I knew I should be by that time. Whenever I got to a point where I had to stop and think for more than ten seconds or so, I’d skip and move on to something I could do. I got to the end of the first section and went back and took another shot at the problem problems, and some of them made more sense the second time round.

I had a lot of false starts, messy calculations, and stuff that was scribbled out.  On one slightly lateral matrix question I got myself confused and ended up with pages of crossed-out workings. In the end I just wrote ‘oh sod it’ because there was no time to think.

The second part of the exam is the more difficult part.  I knew how to approach all of it but I messed up various things and was now working so quickly that I have no way of knowing how successful I was or wasn’t—there was no time to check anything. 

The material was all within my reach except for maybe a couple of points here and there where they asked for something weird and I didn’t know what they were talking about. But under the pressure I just could not think and even the simple problems gave me grief. I worked right to the end of the three hours but it was not enough time.  That’s what really threw me.  I am generally pretty quick. I’m not some sort of super-intelligent person, but whatever I do I do it fast. I think fast, I read fast, I write fast, I eat fast, I walk fast. Even in the home trials of the test, I never ran out of time. But on the day I was not fast enough.


My original hope for a distinction is gone. I have revised that downwards to hoping for a Grade 2 pass, but sadly this is by no means assured. If I get a Grade 3 I will re-sit the course.

The course forum is full of people complaining about lack of time and feeling hard-done-by and depressed and disappointed by their performance. People are stunned. One of the OU tutors came up and said ‘that’s the whole point of the exam.’  Well, I don’t know.  If the point of taking a course is to learn something, then the exam seems a very crude assessment tool. But that’s just my Columbia University Teachers College progressive educational ideals talking, I guess.  This is Britain. It’s all about the exams.

So in the end I have decided to treat the whole experience as learning. What have I learned? Not to trust the OU process. For my next course (Physics) I will begin revising and consolidating much earlier in the year.  I will start doing past papers earlier because I already know from my past experience with OU science that the phrasing of questions is often cryptic and you have to almost mindread the teachers to figure out what specifically they want you to give them in an answer. I will read and study more outside the course so that I have a deeper understanding than the course materials alone can give me. I will become unassailable in my mastery of the materials, and then maybe when I come to the exam I can scrape a higher mark.


Meanwhile, I gratefully thank everyone who has encouraged me and listened to my whinging and who has said, ‘You can do it.’ I have needed and used every speck of that help and I appreciate it so very much.

Now I have to get on with everything I’ve been neglecting, including e-mails. I feel a bit floppy. I may need to be a comatose rabbit for a day or two.

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