Coronavirus pandemic

No exams? An education wasted?

With many major exams cancelled due to the pandemic, a student quarantined in Singapore reflects on what she would have done differently if there were no exams


Now that my exams have been cancelled, suddenly I have a lot of free time with little to do.

As I paced my room the day after the International Baccalaureate (IB) was cancelled, I started to question, would I have done things differently? If I had somehow miraculously known that after dedicating 18 months to what is arguably one of the most rigorous sixth-form courses in the world, it would be cancelled, would I have done anything differently?

The answer is definitely.

I would have stopped doing physics past papers till I memorised the answers rather than understood the concepts. I would not have spent my time guessing what teachers would put in the exams.

I would have questioned my teachers more, asking "why?" instead of scribbling down every word they said so that I could memorise it later. I would have done the coursework that I wanted to do rather than ask what was the easiest.

Anyone familiar with an exam-based high school leaving programme, especially teachers and students, will know that this is a sad reality and fault of our education system. As someone who has just spent two years studying for a set of exams only to have them cancelled overnight, I can tell you that, contrary to my teachers' best efforts, I learnt for an exam, not for a love of learning.

The cancelling of the exams has never happened before in the history of this diploma programme, and the IB has not confirmed how we will be graded. We have only been told the results will still be released in July and that it will rely more on coursework; however, the specifics are still up in the air. This adds to the uncertainty as, after two years of studying for exams, it turns out we will not be graded by the set of exams we expected.

If I had learnt for a love of learning, I would have asked my economics teacher to spend more time on game theory, maybe asking for a psychology teacher to teach a lesson on it as well. I would have done my physics coursework on the trajectory of a rugby ball or the forces used in a horse going over a show jump rather than driving a remote car up a hill a hundred times. I would have focused on the rise of communism throughout Asia instead of memorising the dates of every monumental occasion in Nazi Germany, for the fourth time in as many years.

I would have asked my teachers to conduct lessons on their PhDs - we were lucky enough to have some who wrote theses on astrophysics, the modelling of infectious diseases (which might come in handy right about now), the history of sex, and something to do with molecular chemistry I am sure would have gone right over my head.

I would have read more, maybe entire books instead of just excerpts relevant to the syllabus. I would have ventured far away from the word "syllabus", and moved towards what I found interesting.

I am not saying that exams and coursework do not teach students effectively, and am not suggesting that they can be done away with for university admissions.

As someone who aims to start at an Ivy League university in September, I understand the importance of assessing and grading students. But this experience has taught me that maybe my education has not been educating.

With the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the UK, resulting in my parents booking me on the next flight out of England, where my boarding school is, to Singapore, where they live and where I have to serve 14 days of quarantine at home, I have had a lot of time to think about my education.

I have been lucky enough to have attended the best schools, with the best teachers, with the best resources, so I fully understand that I am more privileged than most. I have always loved, or at least liked, school, especially my boarding school. But after essentially 14 years of studying at these prestigious institutes, I still wonder, am I educated?

I have been in touch with friends since the news broke, and the reactions vary from relief to disappointment to confusion to any other emotion in the book, but the common denominator is wonder - what if the exams weren't cancelled, and on the first of May we all walked into the exam hall and took our exams?

We had all spent so long focusing on the result, the number out of 45 (or whatever system it may be), the end goal, that we seem to have forgotten about the journey. That is the problem with exams - it is always about the end goal. Exams made learning not about the journey at all, but about a slip of paper with a number or letter on it that shapes our future.

But once I received the news that the IB was cancelled (following most other exam boards, such as for the Leaving Certificate and the A levels), I felt a sense of relief.

I will not lie, I spent the first day afterwards binge-watching a show on Netflix I had been dying to watch. But after that, for the first time in the last four years, I felt as though I could just learn. Learn, with no pressure of taking an exam or being tested at the end.

The next day, I picked up a book, determined to read the whole thing, cover to cover, not just what was relevant to a syllabus. My English class set up a book club to discuss a book of our choice. I started writing again (as you can see), for the first time in a very long time. I joined in my parents' Zoom business calls and understood how they run their company. I asked my dad about the stock market and about starting to trade myself, something I had been thinking about for a while.

But I digress, I still seem to be asking myself if my education was wasted? But I do not think so as, in my opinion, doing well in exams does not equate with education.

Exams are a measure, not of intelligence or even dedication, but of a student's performance on one day.

If there were no exams, besides everything aforementioned, I would have focused on learning not for a slip of paper with a number on it. I would have learnt for a love of learning, and spent more time with my friends. I would have fallen in love with subjects and topics, and most of all I hope I would have learnt from people and not from textbooks.

  • Hannah S. Sheehy, 17, is a student at Sevenoaks boarding school in Britain who recently completed her quarantine period in Singapore, where her Irish father and Singaporean mother live.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2020, with the headline No exams? An education wasted?. Subscribe