Degree or no degree, that is the question

Looking different

I am writing this sat around the pool on holiday in the South of France. My book selection for the holiday, which included the “Third man” by Peter Mandelson and, “Through the language glass” by Guy Deutscher, had left me relatively uninspired.

The Sunday papers however had much to say, they were all fired up by the recently announced A level and GCSE results. An impressive 97.6 % passed their A levels this year (97.5% 2009) 27% achieved A or A star – 8% were awarded the new A star.

The Sunday Times contained several articles on the value of a university education. The one that caught my eye was written by AA Gill, who I have always felt had a style that was pompous, unnecessarily critical (yes I know he’s a critic) and over important. Yet he was writing from the humble perspective, of someone who did not go to university (He also failed his 11 plus and every other exam after that – see last month’s blog) and so does not have a degree. Nor apparently does Jeremy Clarkson. He (AA) argues that it is experience (practical not general) that matters, and that neither university nor a gap year provides this.

Yet more and more people are attending University, 6% in the 1950’s, and 43% this year, encouraged to do so by the higher salaries graduates command, parental aspiration and the previous Labour government. Oh and perhaps the poor job prospects……

This increase in graduate’s means it becomes inevitable that having a degree will no longer be the exclusive club it once was. It does not of course follow that the degree itself is any less worthy in terms of its academic rigour; although many will imply that this is the case. Differentiating yourself by way of a degree to potential employers does however become much harder.

And although it seems an enviable position for a country to be in, to have an ever increasing educated workforce, the current model is not only financially unsustainable, (Average debt for a student leaving university is now £25,000) worse it may be failing to deliver to both student and employer.

But what could be done?
One idea is to reduce degrees from three to two years. Although it could be argued that some degrees genuinely benefit from having three years, for most two is probably sufficient. Not of course my idea, the two year degree has recently been promoted by Vince Cable, and Buckingham University already offers them. This might be an area that the private sector Universities will look to invade.

It may also be time to accept that full time education is a luxury that neither the individual, the individual’s parents nor the state can afford. I am not suggesting that people should not study and obtain a degree; it’s just that studying for it full time may no longer be the best route. Ideally students should continue their education whilst in full time employment. I fully appreciate that this is easier said than done, particularly in the current environment where getting a job is at best difficult, but higher education should not be seen as a substitute for being unemployed!

Obtaining a degree in two rather than three years will make the whole process more affordable and by studying whilst in employment the individual will gain the practical on the job experience thought so important by Mr AA Gill.

Of course employers will still have a large choice of graduates to choose from, and the degree on its own may not differentiate one individual from another, but as is the case in the post degree job market, the employer will have to choose the best candidate based not only on their academic record but also on their level of practical experience and what they can actually do.

But what of the gap year? Of course you should still have a gap year, but perhaps not until you are 30 plus, when you might have a better idea what to do and perhaps more importantly would really appreciate and value it…..

The E word – the book about how to pass exams

E for Exam


I have to say that I feel a little self conscious writing about a book that I have written, yet it has taken up such a large part of my life for the last four years, I cannot let its publication go without saying something.

The E word is a book about exams and how to pass them, and part of my motivation to write it came from the simple observation that success or failure in the exam room was becoming increasingly important. Increasingly important because unlike in the past, when there were jobs and opportunities available regardless of your academic record, this was not the case anymore.
My daughter was 11 at the time and was just about to sit her first really important set of exams. It seemed then and is becoming a reality that this was the start for her of 10 to 15 years, perhaps even longer, of sitting exams! That is a huge chunk out of someone’s life, and for my daughter and many others it was also the first time that her success and failure would be so ruthlessly measured.

There was also this somewhat elitist attitude to rank people in accordance with their exam record, pass and you are in the club, fail and you are not. And from there it gets worse; people begin to plan out your whole life based on what you did on a piece of paper for 3 hours. In some instance elevating you to the highest position, with comments like “he/she will go far”, “very bright, they have a great future ahead”, which is fantastic, but not so motivational if they say “not cut out for an academic career”, “not really bright enough”. It was as if the exam result was a crystal ball that people stared into to predict your destiny.

And based on what, the performance in an exam, and the result you get…….

This is not an argument to change the system nor am I suggesting that we do not need exams; it just brought home to me the importance of passing and the implications of failing.

But I had another motive; my job is to get accountancy students through their final level professional exams. To do this we use a whole raft of techniques that together with a lot of hard work by the students had proved very successful over many years. I was convinced that the techniques we used at this level could be of benefit to anyone who has to sit an exam. So I thought I would write them down and find out.

Run Forest run
Although not explicit in the book, there is a theme on which it is based and one that is important to me. In the film Forest Gump, Forest, the main character (Tom Hanks) is born with learning difficulties, he has an IQ of only 75 (90-110 is normal) yet despite this he manages to excel and ultimately achieve success, because of hard work, determination, clarity in his objectives, oh and with a little luck.

And that’s what this book is about, anyone can be successful, you have to play with the cards you have been dealt. To pass exams, intelligence (whatever that means) is just one factor. Everyone has it in them to pass, you just need the right mental attitude, knowledge of how the exam system works and techniques that will improve your performance.

And if you don’t have them, then buy the book………please

Available for £10.00 from all good book stores, or by following the link to Kaplan publishing

Just in case you forget the many ways that you can eat shrimp
Bubba: Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. There, uh, shrimp kabobs, shrimp creole… shrimp gumbo, panfried, deep fried, stir fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp… shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich… that’s, that’s about it.

Cheating is not the only option

January somehow slipped by and February is upon us and I have yet to post a blog in 2010. I have been awakened from my blogless slumber by the news that 4,415 students cheated in their GCSE and A level exams last year compared to 4,156 in 2008, an increase of some 6%. There is of course much condemnation and moral indignation that students would stoop so low. “You are only cheating yourself” is the often used expression.

In China the college entrance exams are thought so important that parents don’t simply drop their children off on their way to work, they wait anxiously outside the exam hall whilst they take the exam. More than 10 million students sit these college entrance exams. For many it is life changing, pass and you will go to university, fail and you are destined for a life of manual work. And with families in China only allowed to have one child, that one child carries the hopes and aspirations of the entire family.

Last year in Sanman County in Zhejiang Province some parents persuaded the teacher to fax through the exam questions, after the students had entered the exam hall. These were then answered by some university students and fed through via wireless ear piece to the students sitting the exam. The Chinese authorities took a hard stance and jailed 8 of those involved for between 6 months and 3 years.

So is this increase in cheating a breakdown in the moral fibre of this generation, is it on the increase because new technologies make it so easy or is it simply that the pressure to succeed is so great that students, and parents will do anything, including cheat.

It may have something to do with all three, but I suspect it is mostly the result of exams creating a Gattaca (The movie that portrays a world organised according to genetic talent) type environment where those that have the exam passing gene are accepted and those that don’t feel they have little choice other than to break the rules.

In this country at least we are fortunate in that although failing exams is not the best career move, it is not the end of the world. True you may not get into the school that you wanted, but you will be able to get into another one. And yes you may have to put your life on hold for another year in order to retake an exam, but you can retake it. So cheating is not the only option, with a little self belief and determination, the future can still be what you want it to be, as they say in Gattaca “There is no gene for the human spirit”

Exam focused learning

Exam paper 1On the 20th and 22nd of October I will be delivering a one and a half hour webinar on exam focused learning.  So what this is and how it can help with passing exams is on my mind. It therefore seemed appropriate that this blog should be devoted to explaining a little bit more about it. For those that did attend the presentation and may well be logging on after the event, welcome back, I hope you will find this a useful reminder that may prompt you to add your thoughts or ask some questions. You can do this by clicking on the leave a comment link at the bottom of this blog.

Exam focused learning is a way of studying that places a much greater emphases on looking at specific topics rather than the whole syllabus and using examination answers as a key way to both learn and focus attention. I should also say that this approach is best suited for what I would call more traditional exam formats rather than multi choice questions and case studies.

Imagine you are about to begin studying a new subject, one that you have little or no knowledge. Let’s also assume that you are studying from home. What do you look at first, maybe the text book, you turn to the contents page and look at the 22 chapters that you are required to read and understand. Perhaps you then get a blank pad of paper, a pen, a coffee and begin by reading chapter one. You probably make notes as you go through so that you have something to re-read and revise from later. You go through the entire book making notes in this way and so in theory at least have begun to learn the subject.

The problem with this approach is that it takes a lot of time and although you feel that you are covering everything, you of course aren’t. You will almost certainly have to miss some things out or move more quickly through certain areas just to keep up with your timetable.  The other problem with this “Traditional approach” is that you will spend so much time learning you will have little time left for practicing exam questions.

Exam focused learning does not start with the text book; it starts with your objective. Let’s assume that this is to pass the exam, not learn the subject.  If you wish to pass, on the day of the exam you will have to answer the questions set by your examiner. Now imagine if you knew what these exam questions would be. If you did would you stand a better chance of passing, yes or no. I think yes. The only problem is that you don’t have the actual exam questions……but you do or can obtain lots of past exam questions, questions that have been set by your examiner before.

So here is the first important point, better to learn the answers to these than to learn pages of content from a text book that may or may not be relevant. Now of course this will not work in the complete absence of some understanding of the subject which will have to come from a tutor, lecturer or text book. But the clarity of direction that a question gives, the specific way it shows what you are meant to learn and the context in which something needs to be understood is invaluable.

The next problem, there are just too many past questions.  We really need to have fewer questions to study, at least to start with. By analysing past questions you should be able to identify which topics have consistently come up in the past, these we must learn. Then we look at topics that are likely to come up in this exam. We should be able to spot these in our analysis as being important topics that have not been examined for some time.  These should be learned. And finally we look at those topics that might come up, these are nice to learn.

And here is the second important point, on the face of it this sounds like question spotting but really it’s about focus it simply gives you a point from which to start.  By all means learn everything, but if you can’t or don’t have time, better to have studied and practiced questions on the most important areas and the ones most likely to be examined.

If you change your way of studying to this exam focused approach you will enter the exam room knowing what the three or four most important topics within your subject are. More importantly you will have practiced answering past exam questions on these areas and so will be very well prepared for what might come up. You should also have practiced some questions on the next three/four most likely topics for this exam. Now compare that with the student who has gone through the text book making notes but who due to time pressure had little or no time to practice past questions. Who do you think stands a better chance of passing……?

Exam focused learning….Done

Ps – next year my book currently entitled “The E (Exam) word” should be published. In it I explain in far more detail exactly how to follow the exam focused approach, what to do in the exam, how to cope with exam stress and  how to improve your chances of passing by using effective memory techniques.

Watch this space for more details 

Exam season is here to stay

Exam season is here to stay
Here goes my first blog ……It is that time of year again, the exam season when students (we are all students of something) sit in a room with a wobbly desk and hope that what they write in the next 2/3 hours bears some resemblance to what the examiner wants.
Believe it or not some people actually like exams; they enjoy the challenge and how they feel when doing them. That sensation of control and an “ask me another one” mentality that is only really enjoyable when you know the answer. They are in a way showing off, if not to others at least to themselves. Then there are other people who don’t like exams, but enjoy the study ,the learning but not the actual exam. They get a buzz from the discipline of knowing what they have to do and learning something new. For them it is a measurable form of achievement, they are not learning for a reason other than a “today I learned something that I did not know yesterday” feeling, they have a mindset that finds almost anything “interesting”. They are curious about everything.

And then there are the rest of us who don’t like examinations, don’t know everything and don’t wake up every morning wanting to learn something new, yet need to learn new things in order to stay a float in the modern world. Maybe exam success will bring a promotion or get you through the door for that all important interview. Or is it the status the qualification brings which will not only earn the respect of others but build self confidence. Whatever the reason exams are here to stay.

And so to the point, no one is born knowing everything and neither are they born with a sense of wonder and a desire to learn. They have just found that if they are curious then they are more likely to learn and if they feel good after getting a question right it, is more likely that they will want to get another one right so will work harder as a consequence. Don’t forget the person who knows the answer had to be sufficiently motivated to learn the answers in the first place, yes perhaps they find it easier to learn, perhaps they are able to pick things up quickly but they still had to learn it.
So if you have to take exams or have a need to continually learn perhaps it would be a good idea to be a little more curious and to take pleasure from knowing the answer because if you do it makes the whole process of learning and passing exams so much easier, which in turn might help with that next promotion, now that cant be a bad thing….

Things that made me think
I like Lucy Kellaway who writes a column in the FT. She often pokes fun at the business world which as I am sure she would freely admit is a very easy thing to do. However she recently wrote an article “underdog tale sheds light on pushy parenting” click

In it Lucy argues that although inspiring stories exist of the underdog winning, they are few and far between, or as Lucy put it “its claptrap”. She states that there is even more dominance by Oxbridge and private schools of the professions than ever. This she argues is the reason that pushy parents are perfectly rational to obsess over the qualifications of their children.

Now you will not find me arguing that exams don’t matter but the implications of what Lucy is saying is that unless your child is reading by the age of two, then there is little chance for them in this world. This is not only depressing and uninspiring but also suggests that the world in which we live is logical and that a path once started upon cannot be varied and it becomes inevitable what will happen.

Yes of course Lucy has a point, if you are born into a family who are supportive, push you hard and have both the money and time to do this, then on the whole you are more likely to do better than say someone with less advantages. But this apparent inevitability denies the role the individual plays in all this. It is what you do, given where you are and the skills/attitude you have that makes the difference not where you come from or what your parents did to help. And although Derek’s (Read the article) success may in fact be unusual, it is inspiring and does prove that you can achieve the unusual and so by definition making it, if not the norm, a possibility and one that might inspire others to follow.

So in a world of the first Black American president, where your money is no longer as safe as houses and Susan Boyle did not win Britain’s got talent, maybe there is a chance for us all.