3 Things Every Singaporean Parent Gets Wrong About Exams

“Exam” is the worst four letter word you can utter in Singapore. There’s no way to talk about it without starting some kind of argument. And that happens because most of us miss the point of exams entirely. Here’s how we’re confused:

 A study in human nature, being an interpretation with character analysis chart of Hoffman's master painting "Christ in the temple"; (1920)


1. We Think Poor Exam Scores are Always Caused by Lack of Aptitude

When your children fail English, it’s always because they don’t read enough right? When they fail at maths, it’s because they’re bad with numbers right?

The correct answer is maybe. Some of the time, it’s lack of aptitude. The rest of the time, aptitude has nothing to do with the results – and no amount of assessment books will help.

Think about the last time a colleague got a bad job review. What was the cause? Most of the time, the answer is not incompetence (or they probably wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place). The cause is more likely to be:

  • Domestic problems
  • Having team members they can’t get along with
  • Lack of organisational skills
  • Inability to handle stress

And many others. It’s quite a rare occasion when the cause is “not knowing how to do the job”.

The same thing applies to your children and their exam results – when children fail to score well, the cause may not be a lack of knowledge. It may be due to problems from bullying, lack of sleep, an act of defiance toward a teacher they hate, etc. And plying them with more past exam papers and assessment books would just be meaningless

So when you see bad exam results, don’t jump to conclusions – rather than assume your children lack aptitude, sit them down and talk about how school is going. You may find a much deeper problem that has to be addressed.

Classic Learning

2.  We Think “Learning” and “Preparing for Exams” are Similar Processes

If you compile everything your child learns about chemistry over a year, and compare it to the examinable questions, you’ll find maybe 20% of it is tested. Herein lies the vast gulf between the actual learning process, and the academic / institutional process of testing.

Exams test a small part of what your children learn, and scoring well boils down to whether they happen to remember those specific parts. In that sense, exams are more like Trivial Pursuit than a genuine intelligence test.

Catering to either extreme is inadvisable. If you plug your children with nothing but enrichment and wide scale learning, then they’re better equipped for real life – and they’d better be, because they might have some terrible paper qualifications.

If you decide to “game the system” and prep your children only for exams, then you’re raising a well qualified child who will probably do zero jobs well in real life.

What you want to do is go between the two: teach on a wider scale where possible, but switch modes near exam periods. Since each child is different, you’ll also need to vary the approach for them.

This is one reason we suggest individualised tuition services – it’s hard to ease your child between two different modes of studying in a classroom setting. Lite Tutors has a wide database, and can help you find the right match.


3. We Get Conned Into Thinking It’s a Competitive Process

No, we’re not going to say that education isn’t a competition. In fact, it’s quite easy for education to be a competition…if you treat it that way. For whatever reason, we like to mentally grade our children like farm eggs, or view the path to a degree as a giant racetrack.

But here’s the ironic bit – researchers have found that students who are encouraged not to care about grades are the top scorers. Check out this Stanford study, which provides a simple explanation:

When students aren’t worried about what grades they’ll get, they are more willing to explore and experiment. Literature students start to write unique arguments (which are the secret sauce to high grades, follow us on Facebook for more on that), maths students internalise formulas (by toying with them like Lego blocks) and science students start applying principles practically.

Again, this isn’t some abstract way of saying they’ll do well “in the world outside”. This is the best way to score in exams; it’s a behavioural characteristic of top students.

Do you like the current exam system? What would you change about it? Comment and let us know!

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CircaSassyAlan LevineSage Ross