Today’s article is number two in my series on exams. Exams are here to stay, whether they be formal exams such as promotion exams or the presentation of a thesis. I have discovered that life itself is an institution of learning and along the way, there are many exams one must sit. We fail some of these exams but, by and large, by pressing on in life, we pass many more tests than we fail.
If we are honest enough with ourselves, we can truly say that those tests that we failed and had to re-sit were the ones that made us better individuals. Let me give you another glimpse into my journey of academia.
If I thought that physiology was challenging, I was grossly misinformed. I was introduced to the phenomenon known as pathology in my fourth year of medical school. It did not take long for me to become overwhelmed by the expanse of this particular subject, which was so wide, varied and seemingly all-encompassing. I do not believe that there was ever a time during this particular clerkship that I felt in control of the subject matter and my grades reflected that.
By the time exams came around, I knew I was going to fail. As a matter-of-fact, I was supposed to go to Canada for a clerkship and because of a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak at the time I was unable to go. I took that as confirmation that I was going to fail the clerkship. The day of the exam I did what I believed was my best and went back home.
This memory for me is not as clear as my preclinical saga, but I ended up having to do an oral exam. In our medical school, one gets an oral exam for two reasons. Either you are on the cusp of honours or distinction and the judges wish to give you the opportunity to go over the edge, or in all fairness, you are given the same opportunity to move from failing to a passing grade.
When I got my oral, I knew that it was not that I had done brilliantly, but I was being offered the chance to enter the realm of those who had ‘slain the giant’ of pathology. To cut a long story short, I failed the oral. For the first time in my life, I had failed a major exam. I was crushed, devastated, deflated, unmotivated, and I decided right there and then that I was going to quit medical school. I believed that I was not cut out for it and I would pursue some other vocation.
This is where friends and family become important. I clearly recall that when my now husband picked me up my eyes were red and puffy and I had sadness and defeat written all over my face. He took me to Browne’s beach and by the end of the conversation, I had compromised to taking a few days off from school and then going back.
It was difficult being on ward rounds with all the others who had passed. It did not help that I was not the only one who had failed; it was simply a fact that I had failed. Many days I cried, both at school and at home, but I kept going back.
Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the repeat exam was in Jamaica. I picked up the mammoth textbooks and dusted off the handouts and packed some clothing and was off to the ‘Land of wood and water’ to repeat my exam. Once I had settled in, I tried to study. I could not study. I had a headache that would not go away and subsequently another round of fear and crying began.
I recall saying that my experience in Jamaica was a wonderful one and one of the reasons is that I made some friends who became my family and to this day, still occupy that place in my heart. They prayed with me, encouraged me and I felt better. But I still could not put in the work I believed was required to pass this exam. Failing this exam would put me in the all too familiar position of possibly repeating a year.
The day of my repeat I got up, got ready and went to my exam. I have been straining my brain to recall if there was a written exam in addition to the oral, but I honestly cannot remember. I think the more important piece of information here is that without any additional study, I passed the same course I had failed.
What was the difference? Why did I fail the first exam? Clearly, it was not a lack of knowledge because I did not add to my fund of knowledge for the second exam. In retrospect, the answer was found in what I believed. I believed that I was going to fail the exam, and I convinced myself by my thoughts and by my actions that I was going to fail. Some may call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I go back to the Bible and in Job 22:28 it speaks about declaring things which will come to pass. I declared the wrong things. My confidence was non-existent in my first oral but I do remember the way I spoke and sat in my second oral, loudly proclaiming that I knew my work, and I was worthy of a passing grade.
Let it not be said that I advise readers to skip studying and declare a distinction! I recently re-discovered my passion for reading and several authors, including those in the Bible, speak about the power of thought, the spoken word, and the influence these behaviours have on our actions and by extension, our outcomes.
Why should you think, believe and speak yourself into failure, when you could just as easily, use the same tools to produce success? A word to the wise is sufficient.
(Rénee Boyce is a medical doctor, a wife, a mother and a Christian, who is committed to Barbados’ development. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)