How to bounce back after a bad exam (a PCMS clap back)

Our curriculum is organized into 5-7 weeks blocks/terms each focusing on a specific system (well at least from the third block). We have to complete 12 blocks throughout the duration of 3rd and 4th year, 6 blocks a year and then write a final integrated exam at the end of 4th year. However we also write two exams at the end of each block, covering the content we had just learnt (in the older system we’d also write a third exam from the previous block at the end of every second block e.g. I’d write PCMS again together with LOTS paper 1 and 2 at the end of the LOTS block – so glad they decided to do away with this in 2016).

If you’ve read Intro to SCMD3000, (almost 2 years later), then it wouldn’t be too difficult to guess that my first block didn’t go in a way that had me celebrating. PCMS paper 1 was brutal, have you ever written a paper that, actually lets leave it at that. My first exam had me feeling like maybe I just wasn’t smart enough for this medicine business, I mean how could I be with an embarrassing 43.82% as a mark.

I could have made all the excuses in the world; I had registered late, I didn’t have the prescribed textbooks, coming from a gap year I wasn’t quite used to studying again, I had lost my baby sister a week before the exam, I was working part-time to put myself through school. All very valid but unfortunately they wouldn’t change my marks, would they? One of the things I’ve learned from my almost 5 years of varsity now is the importance of reflection and knowing oneself.
All excuses aside, whenever we’ve flunked a test or exam we’ve had a general idea as to why; maybe we didn’t budget our time well (first year biology test 3), maybe we didn’t practice on past papers enough (pretty much every physiology test ever), or maybe we just didn’t understand the content (first year chemistry). In my case I didn’t really have time to mourn and be down because the second block had already started and I needed to figure out why I had struggled so much with the first one. So in my reflection, I realized; I hadn’t managed to cover all the work, couldn’t recall all those autopsy slides and pretty much anything bacteria (bloody microbiology).
I needed a plan – so into “let’s get an A+ mode I went
*Plays ‘Eye of The Tiger’ by Survivor for motivation*


First thing I needed to do was create more study time without expecting the day to randomly last longer than 24 hours. I looked at my timetable and started filling in the free gaps with my own study time. I didn’t have the luxury of working on my school work during the weekend because I’d have my part-time job which was quite strenuous too, so I made sure I got to campus an hour before and stayed for at least one hour after lectures everyday to study. I spent my now free Friday afternoons (💔 I know) in the PBL rooms (study rooms). I couldn’t just study harder, I needed to study smarter too.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious there for a second, studying such a heavy course content wise, it’s so easy to fall behind and not manage your time effectively. A friend of mine had suggested I kept a diary or some kind of calendar to help keep track of how much I had studied, what I still need to cover or revise on. It also allowed me to allocate a certain amount of time for past papers a few days before the exam. In a perfect world I’d stick to this schedule like white on rice but unfortunately I’m human so I had to leave room for possible unforeseen events like tornados, world war III, catch ups or random series binge watching (like re-watching Game of Thrones’ last season before the new one starts). But in all seriousness life does happens; sometimes it takes longer than expected to grasp a concept or go through a section. Sometimes you’re just too tired from the day or just not in the mood. So I can’t stress how important it is to put together a realistic timetable to study the new material and continuously revise from the previous block too. To increase my study time I’d chosen the day in the week with the least lectures and compulsory themes to stay at home and study. My now blooming social life took quite a hard knock too but it was a necessary sacrifice. I wasn’t just studying to pass I also needed to regain the confidence that I was smart enough to sit in my new class, that my acceptance into the program wasn’t a waste or that I was occupying the seat of another more deserving student. I covered the work, then recovered it again; made random mnemonics and associations to help me remember the work. Changed a few things about my study methods and try new ideas I got from the net; sticky cards, key words, podcasts (anything I could get my hands on). I seek aid from colleagues in my class and in senior years. I wasn’t too fond to the idea of a study group, because more often than none there would be more of everything else in comparison to studying. We did however agree to meet on certain days to go over a past paper and discuss answers, this often took hours because we kept going off track but it was really good to have a break and chat about series, movies or sport every now and then. There’s only so much oedema talks I can do.
If I had to summarize this entire post;
1. Accept that it does happen and give yourself a limited amount of time to mourn and reboot.
2. Reflect and try figure out what was the main reason(s) that exam went bad.
3. Stay away from excuses, have goals, make an active study plan, and try your best to stick to it.
4. Regain your confidence by going through example questions and seeking help (consulting with colleagues, tutors and/or lecturers)
5. Find a study method that works for you. Different methods work for different people and different subjects. For example I need to read out loud as if I’m teaching whoever is listening; it’s fun, makes me look crazy but it works for me.
I’m not saying this is a bullet proof plan and that it will work for everyone but it worked for me. It worked for me because of how personally tailored it was to me, it took into account that I used public transport to get to and from campus, the exhaustion from that and the fact I worked 18 hours each weekend. Sometimes I was behind in comparison to my peers but I kept at it and never allowing myself to get overwhelmed. By the time I wrote PCMS paper two, I had a lot more confidence in myself and my memory. When the marks were released I was 4% short to doubling my paper 1 mark, 83.72%. That’s a hard mark to forget plus it was also my first A in Medical school, so you can just imagine what it did for my confidence and the type of tempo it set for the rest of the year.
Thinking back I wonder what my marks would have looked like if I had stuck to this plan for longer than a block.

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