• Matthew Burgos

I failed my exam three times. Here’s how I passed.

by Matthew Burgos

Aaron Burden from Unsplash


Succumbing to eight hours of study sounds appealing, but the strain it produces cost more than its value. When we study, there’s an unspoken tradition of race of who’s the first one to comprehend the huge chunk of information that trespasses our mind. If education is driven with such a nature of thinking, studying then is perceived as a weapon to show off and not to foster.


Cowered over the heaping stacks of paper, I used to stick to one page and finish its content from top to bottom, line by line. As my eyes moved from one word to another, a sting of pleasure would arouse my senses from discovering a piece of knowledge I hadn’t known before. Yet as I continued reading the text, I couldn’t help but feel the batteries of my mind discharge in a gradual pace, leaving me exhausted and bone dry by the end of the chapter. What’s worse was the sensation of forgetfulness that seemed to dawn the moment I stopped reading. After taking in so much information, I couldn’t wield all of them and tend to lose the essential concepts.


During my Economics exam in my first year at the university, I stumbled upon a student’s dilemma. I had studied over 10 chapters from the reading materials to brace myself for an exam with six questions in total. The overflowing information that cascaded in my mind failed to piece themselves together before and during the exam. I found myself nibbling on my fingers, allowing the anxiety to gnaw my insides. The graphs and solutions that I needed to jot down blurred out and I floundered to explain in words how I arrived at those solutions. When I couldn’t fathom the numbers, lines, and economic terminologies on my paper, I submitted it and left the room. The following day, I received a “failed” grade.



"If education is foreseen as a race, studying then is perceived as a weapon to show off and not to foster."



I had the opportunity to retake it, gearing up for another crash of my racing heart. After my second take, I failed. Third attempt came in and I still failed. I had to wake myself up from the stupor that something didn’t fit right. I had kept studying the same materials in line with almost the same exam questions, but different numbers. Before registering for the fourth try, I stopped myself from clicking “Submit” and pondered on what I had been doing wrong. I looked at the mountainous stockpile of paper beside my laptop and came to a realization that the demonic thick set of my reviewer caused my ever-persistent predicament.


I had been reading my 80-page reviewer for my three previous Economics exams. I rifled through the pages and wondered if I could even explain the theories before drafting the graphs and computing for the solutions. I couldn’t. I bit my lower lip out of frustration. My fingers rhythmically tapped my desk at a furious pace. Then, following a few minutes of racking my brain for answers, a light bulb moment flashed and I snagged it.


A week before my third Economics exam retake, I skimmed through my notes. What concepts would be necessary for me to understand? How could I connect those to other essential concepts? Where should I end up after sewing those concepts together? Why did I come up with such answers? The pillars of intertwined questions I had in mind shovelled deeper into the way I needed to study.



"A light bulb moment on how to study smarter flashed in my mind and I snagged it."



Philippe Bout from Unsplash


My voyage to discovering how to learn and study smarter began. I plucked out the concepts that deemed necessary for me to grasp well. Then, I built on those and found their thread of connection with the recurring questions in the exam. Once I grappled with the basics, I moved forward with the equations and how to solve them. I mulled over the sample questions my professors had uploaded online and methodically executed a set of trial-and-error tests until I found the correct answer. Jumping at the graphs, I relied on how I would explain my solutions before drawing the lines and dots on the paper. I reeled back from the bigger picture that I painted: I had a solid explanation for the correct answer that I had solved for.


Between highlighting the unnecessary phrases with a strike-through and clenching my eyebrows to aggravate my focus, I stretched my strained muscles and yawned from exhaustion, but retained the consistency of cancelling the freeloading information. A few days later, my once 80-page reviewer unraveled into a 10-page stack. The night before my fourth try, I stomped down the sob that rose to my throat. The unease skyrocketed just before I drifted to sleep. I tried to talk myself out of it, but an impending question popped out: what if I had taken the wrong step on downsizing the 80-page notes?


The following morning, I gulped the 500ml of water bottle that I had brought with me. My jolting knees hit the bottom of my desk at one point. I brushed off the trickle of sweat that formed on my forehead. The front door opened and my two Economics professors strolled in, the cluster of exam paper sheltered in their arms. Their chatter seemed oblivious to the tension that wafted in the air. After a set of announcements rolled, they handed out my fourth attempt.


There were six problems in total, mirroring the questions that I had been answering in the past three exams but bearing different numbers and additional tasks. I tackled the ones that I was confident at before treading my way to the less familiar lodgings. Then, my professors signalled that our time was up after I just polished up the last dot on my graph. I submitted my answer sheet, concealing the tremble in my fingers. They asked me to wait outside the room and to come back inside once they called my name.



"What if I had taken the wrong step on downsizing my 80-page reviewer?"



Over five minutes passed and two students had already gone outside the room wearing troubled expressions. I heard my professors called out my name. I shook my hands and carried my pulsing heart inside the room. I sat down in front of them and blurted, “this is my fourth try” out of the blue. They shared a pensive expression and the one sitting on the left nodded. “I don’t think you should worry now,” the other professor said. “This is a great score you’ve got.”


Zac Durant from Unsplash


One word: catharsis. A loud sigh of relief ensued then my raspy tone that gritted “this is surreal.” I thanked them with an obvious elation on my face and ran out of the room. I closed the door and muffled a semi-whispered “yes!” There was a sense of finality in that moment, a finished book to close with an important lesson to soak in.


Efficiency in learning is the key to grip the knowledge. Mending the crucial concepts cover the bases to form the bigger picture of understanding. As I continue learning old materials and discovering new data, I treat them with keen observation on which goes on the top level of hierarchy and which folds as supplemental information. Then, I digest them layer-by-layer until I seize its core.


Studying is not a race. It defeats the purpose of learning. There’s a finish line, but there’s no time limit on when to reach it. Indulging ourselves in the joy of learning wins the paradigm of retaining the fluency about a certain topic. Nobody is left behind at this point. We’re slow, sure, and just where we should be at.


#studysmarter #howtostudy #studytips #learning #howtolearn

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