Let’s Talk: Studying & Exams

Today’s topic: exams. In another life this would be a stressful time of year; however, recently, I had to face the horror of online exams and I thought this blog would be a great opportunity to discuss why I find exams so difficult and some of the major issues I have with the Irish education system.

Something which I have always liked about the Irish education system is that it is very easy to explain to people who have not grown up in it. We do eight years of primary school until the age of about twelve. Secondary school lasts six years. For the first three years, you complete the Junior Cycle, which ends with the Junior Certificate, the minimum qualification for getting a job in Ireland. Most students will then stay in school to either participate in Transition Year (as I did) or go straight to Fifth Year. Either way at the end of Sixth Year, you complete the Senior Cycle which ends with the Leaving Certificate, which is required for access to universities in Ireland. Although there are variations of this such as Leaving Certificate Applied, it is a very simple and straight forward system. This is aided by the fact that most of our schools teach the same things, with few variations. There is a much smaller divide between what is taught to students in a comprehensive school, a church run school and a private school compared to other countries. However, this has one obvious downside, our education system in incredibly standardised.

As a child, I always thought of myself as smart. I grew up with a mum and a granny who were both teachers. Both of them also loved learning and I remember almost being intimidated by the amount of books we had in our house. From a young age, I understood that reading was an important leisure activity. It was like sports for the brain. My mind was almost like a sponge, I loved learning about things that interested me and when I found a particular interest in something, I would search the internet to learn all about it. This love of learning continued into school. Although I have always had a slight distaste for Maths, I loved subjects like History and English. I spent much of my childhood surrounded by adults and I always tried to learn from them. Between this, my love of research and my good memory, I have maintained a good general knowledge. I was delighted when, one night, Mum was watching University Challenge. There was a picture question and Jeremy Paxman asked what butterfly was in the picture, the contestants got it wrong, but I correctly answered that it was a Peacock butterfly. Mum was delighted at my feat and I asked where I had learnt it, she was surprised to learn that my sponge-of-a-brain had learnt the fact from watching CBeebies.

In secondary school, despite the other troubles I had to face, my love of learning continued. However there was one thing that changed that made it much harder for me, I hated studying. For the five years I have been in school, it has always been this little demon that would come up twice a year, to make my evenings full of stress and guilt. I simply don’t like being forced to go over everything again. When I sit down to study, I feel like my head is telling me, “Been there, done that.” This always made exams harder as I simply hadn’t been able to remember everything. When I tell people that I don’t like studying, it always surprises them. As someone who enjoys routine and likes to be organised, many people also assume that I love studying. My biggest problem with studying is also that no one ever tells you how to study for an exam. Teachers will give some advice and some people simply learn along the way, yet I just haven’t been able to truly understand how to. When I do sit down to try and learn things it feels like I am trying to superglue something in my head but I only have PVA glue to do it with.

Of course, this being the end of Fifth Year for me, I have very little time to start learning how to study. I really want to go to university yet I am afraid of the Leaving Cert. Exams can take a massive toll on my mental health. However I do have one weapon in this battle and that is awareness. I am aware of what I struggle with when it comes to exams and I still have some time to set up safeguards in place. I look forward to having more control over my own learning in university and the freedoms that come with adult learning.

In my opinion, the Irish education system should do away with its simplicity and figure out away to assess students who learn in a variety of ways. My struggles with studying are not rare, many people are not ‘traditional learners’. There is no way that the number of points people receive in the Leaving Cert accurately reflects the actual intelligence of the majority of people who sit the exams. There should be more than one root to access university after secondary school. I cannot think of an exact solution myself and any education system will have its flaws, yet things need to improve.

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