“Exams are cancelled!” 

Doesn’t every school kid long to hear that? 

Well, this year, students around the world have heard exactly that. Due to the widespread impact of COVID-19, schools and universities have closed – amongst all the other chaos, exams are off.

Yay!

With little else to celebrate in these confusing times, that’s the expected reaction.

Yet, as a final-year trainee expecting to take on a challenging exam this summer, I have incredibly mixed feelings about my sudden release from what would have been my final assessment before qualifying as an NHS clinical scientist.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely sat my fair share of exams. Having grown up with a modular school examination system, headed straight to university and then into medical physics training involving a Master’s degree, I’ve studied, stressed and scribbled my way through exam seasons pretty much twice a year for the last decade. I’m pretty done with them. 

And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment, of anticlimax, when I found out I no longer had to go through that one last exam this summer. I felt robbed of my opportunity to prove myself, my moment of pride and celebration when I hopefully managed to pass; ultimately, I suppose, deprived of validation. 

By gaining my qualification without the infamous exam, I felt a bit like a cheat with a free pass, illegitimate compared with those who had earned their stripes fair and square. Ah, hello, imposter syndrome.

In truth, my gut reaction exposed a lot of insecurity. 

I suspect (hope!) I’m not alone in these feelings so, considering where they came from, I thought about the flaws in the system as a whole. A targets-focussed education too often produces young adults whose self-esteem is entangled with exam results; students (and teachers) who feel only as valuable as their last percentage. 

So, where does that leave my “class of COVID-19”? 

I want to encourage you by suggesting that an exam-free summer has the capacity to teach us some much greater lessons than all our planned months of revision would have done.

Without a 50+ percentage and a big green tick, self-belief will have to come from within. We will need to develop our confidence, learning to depend a little less on external validation and a little more on celebrating our own achievements and identity.

Without that pass, we will instead prove to ourselves and others that we are competent by our actions, practical skills, communication and integrity; attributes infinitely more valuable than qualifications. 

Without courses fully completed, we may have to be more acutely aware of our own limitations, swapping pride for greater humility and collaboration with others. 

Without the threat of failure, we will need to tap into our true motivations for learning. Brought up on tests and targets, I’m ashamed to say my younger self quickly learned to switch off at the slightest mention of the words ‘non-examinable’ at school. This summer, I’m free to study whatever excites and inspires me; things that will help me be better at my job, or just understand that little bit more about the world. 

Exams have their place, and I’m sure they won’t disappear altogether once the current situation is all over. I’m not fundamentally against them – they’ve got me this far, after all. 

However, this unexpectedly exam-free year has challenged me to question their necessity, acknowledge their limitations and, ultimately, to consider where my validation comes from; to shift the focus away from test-passing, towards more genuine learning, self-awareness and confidence. 

Love or hate exams, that can only be a good thing. 

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