Exams and the Mature Student

‘For those with no teeth the Devil supplies nuts ‘… an old adage which pretty much describes my exam experiences. In fact I must have spent my entire school career metaphorically sucking my gums. The only beacon of hope was the prospect of finally leaving and being able to consign the spectre of exams to the flames along with my gym kit and Brenda Lewthwaite’s hockey stick with my blood still on it.


Decades later I found myself back in the Twilight Zone of Exams because I had become a Mature Student without paying due care and attention to the very real possibility of Examination Distress – which is one giant step up from Stress and comes with a tendency to hyperventilate and assume the foetal position on public transport.


The recommended tactics for exam/ revision survival always seemed to target those who didn’t have a problem in the first place. ‘Have a warm relaxing bath’. Really? Bad Idea for those experiencing those End of the World feelings. ‘Talk to a friend’, better, except my friends soon learned the value of going away on holiday/ contracting something infectious / not answering the door in revision season. As for ‘Make notes and stick them around the house’, this seemed sensible until the notes began to reflect my state of mind. I removed them before I was gently ushered into a Secure Unit where the staff wear soft-soled shoes, talk in hushed tones and where plastic cutlery is all the rage.


Nobody seemed to address the crippling problem of utter despondency, sheer panic and the inability to remember one’s name when presented with a paper demanding academic competence – that same academic competence you’d been admirably demonstrating in your assignments all year but now the only book you could remember ever reading was Famous Five Go off in a Caravan.


My only exam ‘strategy’ was to learn essays off by heart so at least I had something to write when faced with the brain-emptying glare of the exam booklet. Not that I would necessarily recommend this approach, given that on one occasion it gave rise to an answer to an exam question on Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (analysis of which I hadn’t learned off by heart for the simple reason reading the book was like trying to strain spaghetti through a hairnet), an answer that began with ‘She saw something nasty in the woodshed’. Great Aunt Ada Doom and her ever-present woodshed issues was a great favourite of mine and since I had learned all there was to learn about Cold Comfort Farm and since it didn’t figure on the exam paper, it seemed a waste not to wave it like a flag of courageous surrender.


In spite of exams, and most certainly not because of them, I did get my degree and it was a good one, proving exam survival is just about possible. Strangely enough my exams always seemed to take place in cavernous Gyms, where my rapid breathing gave rise to a lightheadedness which probably accounted for the times I was certain I heard the ghostly tapping of Brenda Lewthwaite’s hockey stick.

Denise Fraser, BA (Hons)