If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not least because I’m an undergraduate admissions tutor. It was the following paragraphs, however, that really hit home:

I know this because it happens each year, and it happened to me all those years ago when I failed one of my A-levels.

And what 30 years of experience has shown me is that if you end up not getting your first – or even second – choice of university place and have a tense couple of days on the phone sorting out new plans through the clearing process, then you will look back on this as something positive.

I ended up at a university I had never visited. It proved to be the best thing that happened in my education. And, like me, each year students come back at Christmas from their first term at university telling us that the unexpected change of plans has worked out to be brilliant.

Fortunately, I didn’t fail any of my Leaving Certificate exams — extreme exam failure was to come later on in my academic career — and I went on to start my BSc in Applied Physics degree at Dublin City University the following month. DCU was a small university at the time and I made my choice to go there not on the basis of prestige or national/international ranking  — in any case, the pseudostatistical, pseudoscentific, faux-quantitiative nonsense of university league tables hadn’t yet been spawned back in 1985 — but solely on the sense of excitement and, indeed, ‘belonging’ I felt when I attended a DCU Physics open day. (I’ll not bang on about the dubious value of league tables again, except to repeat that many A-level students show a healthy and laudable cynicism when it comes to the numerology of university rankings.)

Barton’s point about exam failure is particularly well made. I’ve been a personal academic and pastoral tutor for undergraduate students at Nottingham for the last eighteen years and it is always heartbreaking to have to tell a tutee that they have failed exams or, worse, can’t progress on their preferred course. This, of course, feels like the end of the world to them: how can they ever recover from what they see as abject failure?

So I tell them that I failed Year 3 of my four year BSc degree in Applied Physics at DCU.

Badly.

Appallingly badly.

For a couple of exam papers I did little more than write my name on the cover sheet. This was because I was rather more focused on the band I was in at the time, returning home to Monaghan at weekends to rehearse/play gigs and using my revision time to write riffs, lyrics, and songs.

Not clever.

But if I hadn’t failed my third year exams, and had to resit the year, then I am absolutely certain that I would have similarly drifted through my fourth year and graduated with, at the very best, a low 2.2 or, most likely, a 3rd class degree. Failing my exams, in the words of a band whose songs we used to cover at the time, hit me “like a battering ram”. I repeated 3rd year and went into my final year with many orders of magnitude more motivation and commitment. I graduated with a 2.1 (the pass mark I was ‘carrying’ from my third year due to the resits didn’t, let’s say, work in my favour) — enough to take up a PhD.

Less than a year into my PhD I knew I wanted to pursue a career in academia. (For the reasons discussed here).

I recount this story to tutees and students who have failed exams to echo Barton’s advice that it really isn’t the end of the world when things don’t go to plan. I certainly don’t recommend failing exams as an effective study skill or as an efficient strategy for career development. Nonetheless, a failed exam or two can often act as a catalyst to improve a student’s overall motivation and performance.

But that’s enough about me. My secondary school and undergraduate days are so far in the past that my memories of those times have a subtle reddish hue. Let’s instead hear from Jason Patrone, who graduated last month from Nottingham with a thoroughly well-deserved 1st class hons BSc in Physics (and is featured on the front cover of the School’s most recent newsletter):

I got a C, D and E grade at A-level. I then worked for six years in a job I didn’t find rewarding, before making the decision to return to university in 2011. I did the Foundation Year because of the `non-standard’ A-level grades, getting an overall mark of 81% for the year. I then transferred to the BSc and for each year of the degree I secured a 1st class mark.

The second year of the BSc I found the most challenging. Would I have put the same effort in, come the 2nd year crunch time, if I had sailed through A-levels? I doubt it.

Whether it means a kick up the arse for a bogey year/bad results, or facing the harsh realities of a crap job, any glimpse at what bad results leads to — or even just a blunt reminder that you didn’t do what you know you are capable of — works wonders.

Or, as Barton so eloquently puts it in his open letter, “the reality is that sometimes it’s the unexpected events in our lives that are the richest and most rewarding.

 

[Edit 13/08/2015, 11:03 — Drat. Forgot to mention that the cartoon above is from the wonderful xkcd and that it’s made available under a Creative Commons licence.]