So about 6 months back, I had excitedly shared about my going ‘back to school  after 22 years to do my PhD. It was indeed a moment to celebrate, to be proud of, to look forward to and hence the post. But with every good thing, comes the not so pleasant, the unwanted, the hard to manage things as well. In this case, it was the exams. In fact, just one exam to be precise.

Now in a PhD, we are not supposed to have exams (we are not kids, as you have rightly guessed by the course we are into, PhD – the kind of ‘rubaab’ that comes with it). Even from an age perspective, we are not of the age where we need to be ‘tested’ by our ability to clear exams (age range of the students in our batch, which is a part-time course especially crafted for experienced folks, is between 35-55  years). Of course, these are points made by students and I am sure the institute has a different view of it. 

But this article is not about exams in PhD, but exams in general and what they do to us.

Now despite seniority (read maturity) of the students, we all were tense by the mere mention of the word exam. The fear was so intense, that first, we postponed the exam by 3 weeks citing different reasons (chacha ke bete ki shaadi hain, am travelling on a business trip, mujhe haath mein fracture hain main likh nahin paunga, I have exam-onophobia , we have 4 other subjects sir, where we have multiple submissions (the pressure of those is far lesser than your one exam).

Once the date was changed, then the next question was the syllabus and what all needed to be studied. And like any other exam, there was fervent debate on the same in the class Whatsapp group (averaging 150-200 messages a day).

  • Someone said all the chapters in the book, someone clarified the first 3 are ok, then other one said maybe chapters 4 and 5 are also desirable.
  • Then the debate was about the class notes (presentations made by the prof in the class and uploaded on the intranet) – right from the veracity of those presentations to the no. of presentations, there was again discussion and deliberation.
  • Some good Samaritan among us offered his own personal notes as an additional option. Someone dug up notes of one of the seniors from the previous batch – 75 pages of clear handwritten notes (no prize for guessing that the senior is a ‘she’ – what is it about girls and clear handwritten notes that gets xeroxed by the dozen, especially by the guys?).
  • If that was not all, there was a set of 8 papers which we students had made presentation on in the class. So someone (obviously not a genuine well wisher) throws his hat (read opinion) in the ring and says those presentations (and the papers based on which they were prepared), if the presentations were not legible (read easy to understand) then they should also be studied.

Amidst all this commotion, someone forgot to reiterate that the exam would have just 5 questions and we had to answer 3 of them, that made it clear that the amount of content that would matter, was for just those 3 questions.

And yeah, the major reason why we all were so worried was that this was a proctored exam. Now for all those ignorant parents who have not paid minimum attention to how their school and college going students have been giving exams for the last two years, a proctored exam means the ‘screen sharing’ is on all throughout the examination, so you are not allowed to flip screens (read cheat by looking at the content on your laptop.)

  • You would be required to show a 360 degree view of the room you are in, to ensure that you do not have notes, books or any other study material next to you to refer to.
  • Of course your camera is on all the time to ensure you are not tilting your eyes to look at any virtual content or piece of paper that might escape the 360 degree camera view.
  • AND your mike is on, so you do not seek verbal help from anyone else in the room (who might have escaped the attention of the camera or might have sneaked in subsequently). 

It was thanks to all these restrictions that the idea of any ‘parchi’ or ‘kharra’ were quashed before it could be debated. Anyways, we are all from respectable families (read we have our own sense of self-respect and image in the society) and would not have thought of these nefarious means anyway, even if it was possible.

Now, as the day of the exam approached, the discussion on the exam preparation was at an all time high. The bold ones were making their plan public, “I will start my preparation now. As there are only 36 hours left, please provide moral, emotional, logical (all except physical) support so I can make do in 72 hours what you all (foolish of you, but will not say on your face) have spent 3 weeks studying.”

On the day of the exam, which was scheduled for 11 am, there were  series of  “All the best” and “I am not studying anymore, jo hoga dekha jayega.” messages from some of the ironmen and brave-hearts in the group, who, while surreptitiously still checking the messages, would spring into action when someone would ask a question and people would give varying answers on the same. In all honesty, till 10:45am,  I myself was flipping notes and had that sunken feeling that I had forgotten almost everything (still remembered my name, thankfully!!).

When the exam paper was revealed, things got easier and I in fact finished it in 60 minutes instead of the stipulated time of 90 mins and a few others also joined on the whatsapp group for the post mortem of the exam. We all were of course relieved and glad that we were done with the subject for now and can concentrate on the more mundane and trite things in life.

But seriously, what is it about the exams, that evokes such fear, even at this age (30s, 40s and even 50s)? we are all accomplished people, we have at least one masters (if not two) degrees apart from a graduate degree and 12 years of schooling. We have given hundreds (if not thousands) of exams in the past. Surely we should not be perspiring and fretting at this age? And why at any age this fear of examinations? I know many of my school going mentees and college going mentees are completely inaccessible for the entire month when they have 6-7 papers in their final exams. Surely the day they have a paper, they can be relaxed and chilled as they have minimum 3-4 days for the next paper? My own daughter has a virtual DND board in her room during the exams.

It’s not fear of failure, because rarely students ‘fail’ these exams. We all know that people who fail, have clearly not studied all through the year and are clearly in a give-up mode  before the exam (not fearful, mind you). Only students who do work hard for these exams, actually have this exam fever and are totally bugged about them. 

And we do not have such kind of fear in other activities, where again we also would have worked hard. Like in my case, I do not have fear of a marathon, or a critical meeting at work, or a speech or a talk that I need to give to a large audience, etc. In none of these cases (where a failure will lead to sadness for sure), am I worried the way I was for the exam.

And this is particularly so for exams and not for class tests or surprise quizzes that happen impromptu during the year. We are all chilled about it.

And even the ones who do really well in the exams (the toppers) also have this exam fever (generally, I have not been a topper, so maybe I am talking out of turn here).

Anyways, maybe they should try changing the name. Instead of examinations, maybe we can call them ‘Chill session”  or ‘Take a break” or something, maybe physiologically, if not otherwise, it might have an impact.

For now, we are looking forward to the summer break once we are done with the less threatening submissions in the other subjects and yes, we went for a movie the day the exam got over!!

pic credit: Indrosphere