What I learnt from failing: My first and only ‘RE’ exam!

I remembered the year as vividly as if it was yesterday. It was my second year in NUS. For the FIRST time in my life, I have failed an examination. It was my Mathematics paper.

I remember the day when we went to collect the results. I was with my bunch of friends, Campus Crusaders as we were called then. We were all from the Science Faculty. I was on a MOE teaching bond and have to take on teaching subjects – Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry for my first year.

Being a lazy student back then, I thought I was smart to take double Maths in Year 2 as it means less studying. My foundation in Hwa Chong stood me in good ground. I sailed through my first year with very little studying, lots of socializing and playing. I passed with decent grades of A,B and C.

Then the day came. My friends who took Biology went in and take their results. It was A after A. Then it was my turn to go to the Maths department. I remembered I saw my result slip and wondered why it was F for one of the papers. It was such a shameful moment for me – the arrogant and cocky student who thought that no studying and all socializing is the way to go for NUS. I blamed it on the lousy NUS Maths lecturer that talked only to his OHP (overhead projector) instead of teaching us.

It was a rude shock to me. No one of my friends believed I failed and had to do the dreaded “RE”. It did not help that a guy who was very interested in me, told me that he has done RE’s after RE’s and he will be studying with me. I still remember being very offended by his suggestion. “Hey, I am not a loser like you. I am not the “RE” sort.” – was my arrogant thought at that point of time.

I totally withdrawn from my friends, my social life during those months leading up to the RE exam. For the first time I did all the past year questions, revised all my notes and did every single exercise. It was a black hole in my life at that time. I felt stupid and lousy. The arrogant self was all gone. Instead self pity and a deep sense of regret – why didn’t I pull through? My thoughts oscillated between failing my RE again and being shamed to “it’s no big deal, I am sure I can pull through.”

Well, the exam day came. I sat for the paper and was happy that the lecturer actually reused his old question.

Either it was a case of pure luck or plain laziness of the Maths lecturer.

I passed the paper.

I was promoted to Year 3.

That was my brief encounter with failure in an examination. But it proved to be a stepping stone in my life. I become more grounded, less arrogant and more willing to work hard.

It also made me a better teacher. I was able to empathize with students who failed. Some failed because they were lazy like me. But there were many who failed just because they could not understand the teacher. Some worked very hard and yet still can’t pass.

In the various schools that I taught in, St Thomas (which has since closed down due to falling enrollment), Yishun, St Joseph’s Institution and Nanyang Girls’ High, I have many chances to share the tears of my students when they failed a major exam.

It took me many more years and many more failures (not in terms of examinations) but in losing promotions, being rejected, learning to take disappointments to become who I am today. The words of my partner still ring in my ears when I first left a comfortable post to start our education consultancy, “Remember, you are no longer the Dean of NYGH, you need to do everything yourself…..”

Yes, learning to fail is oh so important. It gives you the right perspective to life and more importantly it teaches you what went wrong.

In USA, there is a re-visiting of the over-praising culture for children. According to Dr Jim Taylor, a clinical associate professor at the University of Denver,  “Children develop a sense of competence by seeing the consequences of their actions, not by being told about the consequences of their actions.

“Too much praise of any sort can also be unhealthy. Research has found that students who were lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, were less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.” (Source: Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200909/parenting-dont-praise-your-children)

So do call a spade a spade. Failure, red marks are all stepping stones to make a child with character.

Do wait a while before you stretch out your hand to pick up your child.

Do give him time to learn to stand on his own two feet. 

 Useful links:
The power of Prime – by Dr Jim Taylor

2 replies to “What I learnt from failing: My first and only ‘RE’ exam!

  1. I have the situations as the old you. I just slacking through the semester. In fact, I have confidence to get a minimum passing grade. But today, the day I get back my examination results. I have two grade F. Not just one, but two. I am seriously feeling very down. This is the first I got grade F for my core modules, and they are two of them at the same time. From that, I know very well that I have to change my attitude in studying. But I really don’t have a clue. Could you please give me some advises on how should I practicing my daily routine from now on? Do I have to cut off lots of social and play life?

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