You can't control what exam mark you get

Hello there. My name’s Stephen and I just love philosophy – that’s why I wear big nerdy glasses (see attached evidence) – just so everyone knows. If you are one of my students, in the second year I will be teaching you how we can know what is true in the world[1], but here we are interested in how philosophy can help us deal with the ups and downs of life, including those you will face on your degree. This is an article about how to do the best you are capable of on your course with less of the stress, anxiety and self-criticism often associated with high achievement. Sound good? Let’s go!

[1] On the UCL ‘Qualitative and Mixed Research Methods’ PSYC0235 module

Me. Hi!

Control vs Influence

         You might have been slightly irritated by the title of this article[2]. Surely you can control what mark you get if you work hard enough? Well, kinda… for the purposes of this article we are going to reserve the word ‘control’ for situations you have complete, 100% power over, with no luck involved whatsoever. For anything else we will use the word influence. This is not just an academic distinction – the language you use when you speak to yourself (‘self-talk’) about a challenging situation can have a powerful effect on how you feel before, during and afterwards, and ultimately on how well you handle it.

Consider a professional archer attempting to shoot a bullseye in a competition. What factors affecting whether the arrow hits that little red spot in the centre of the target can the archer control?

[2] Yes, your lecturers have finally learned the tricks of clickbait. Mwahahaha.

Preparation. First let’s go back a little way - in the months and years in the lead up to the competition the archer can of course control how much effort they put into practise, but only in the time they have available. Of course, disruptions in the form of difficult life events, injuries, other duties they may have and other people can take up substantial and unexpected periods of time. But once the day of the competition comes, they can’t change that anymore – they are as skilled as they are going to get.

The night before. Moving to the night before, they can’t fully control how much sleep they get – nightmares and anxious thoughts often come unbidden into our minds – we can learn techniques to help with this, but never fully control it. Paradoxically (and this will be a theme for us), the attempt to control these thoughts can often make it harder to get to sleep i.e. saying to yourself things like ‘Why aren’t I sleeping. Oh no, I’m not going to get to sleep’ just increases your anxiety, which isn’t a great sleep aid.

On the day. Still, they can control pretty reliably (barring some unlikely disaster) how they prepare themselves the day of the competition. They can choose what to eat, hydrate themselves well, and prepare themselves mentally, achieving as best as they can, the ideal calm, focused mind that every sports person aims for.

The lead up. What about when waiting around for their turn? Too late to change how they practised, how they slept last night or how they took care of themselves over the morning - they can still continue to try to maintain that ideal mental state, but we can never fully prevent anxious and self-doubting thoughts from popping up. Again, if we worry too much about those thoughts, just like when trying to sleep, we are more likely to end up in an anxiety spiral, worrying about worrying (about worrying) – better to give up the attempt at control and accept that those thoughts and feelings are there, and just do our best to return our focus to our task anytime they distract us.

Time to take the shot. What can they control now? Still their mental state, their visual and mental focus, but now of course also how they take the shot itself: how they physically move their hands, arms and their whole body during the process of shooting. Of course they can’t perfectly control their body: depending on their physical condition on the day, they will perform better than at other times. If they are particularly anxious their hands and arms might shake a bit[4]: there’s only so much you can do about that.

The arrow leaves the bow. It hasn’t yet hit the target, but all ability to control the outcome for the archer has gone. And yet there are still factors that affect whether it hits the bullseye. The air between the archer and the target is really an unpredictable swirling mass of small eddies and currents and micro variations in temperature that affect how the arrow flies. The archer has done all they can – the result is up to the fates now!

[4] I once took grade 1 violin for charity as an adult, and my arms just would not stop shaking! I got a bare pass 🎉 – personally I thought I should have gotten some extra marks for ‘dynamic play’ but hey.

As human beings we have a strong tendency to believe against all logic that we can fully control the outcome of events, and a lot of the emotional turbulence of life including anger (when things don’t go the way we want, or people behave in ways we don’t like) and anxiety (worrying how the future will turn out) comes from this basic misunderstanding of how our world works.

Why you can't control what exam mark you get

You are the archer (duh). OK I'm sure you've guessed that you are the archer, and the mark you want on your exam is the bullseye. So I won't labour the point. You can largely control[5] how you prepare in the years (attending lectures; being organised with note taking) and months / weeks (both committing the time and effort to revising, and also the way you go about it) leading up to your exams. You have limited control over how you sleep the night before (sure you can read a book before bed rather than stay up playing computer games, but sleep can be very sensitive even to low levels of anxiety) but you can control pretty well (again barring disasters out of your control) how you prepare yourself on the day of the exam, both mentally and physically. Going into the exam you have some power over your mental state, but none of us can completely banish anxiety at will[6].

What you can't control. What we are here to talk about is what you can and can’t control - carrying a firm grasp of this distinction into the exam can help with anxiety. You might find that simply repeating to yourself in your mind all the things you cannot control about the situation as you are heading into it helps reduce your anxiety. For example repeating to yourself ‘I cannot control what questions come up’ as you’re waiting can be a helpful tonic if your mind is worrying about that. Perhaps you open the exam and the section of the course you know best isn’t there. You can’t control that. You’ll just have to do your best with what’s in front of you. Did you sleep badly last night, and your memory isn’t as snappy for everything relevant to the question you’ve got as it would otherwise be? You can’t control that either - you’ll just have to do your best with what you’re facing. Perhaps you feel like you should have revised more, or in a different way. You can’t control that anymore - all you can do now is your best on this exam. Do you feel like someone let you down - didn’t help you prepare in the way they should have, or took up your time when you should have been revising? Perhaps there will be action to take on that later, but not now – all you can do right now is your best on this exam.

What you can control. What can you control in that moment? You can control how you conduct yourself during the exam. Over the next hour or so, you are shooting the arrow. When the invigilator says you can start, don’t let your anxiety rule you, whipping the paper open and start trying to read at a million words a minute. You’ll just have to read it again. Open the exam slowly, communicating to your brain that all is well. Force yourself to read at a normal pace. Resist the urge to rush straight into panic writing: make a plan like your lecturers have advised you and take the time to write legibly so your marker can read your handwriting. Take the time to think about what you are writing and whether it is relevant to the question, don’t just splurge every thought that comes to mind. Take 10 little seconds after each question to close your eyes, count to 10, and remind yourself of the ideas in this article. Visualise yourself as an archer if you like: no one will know! 😊

After the exam. Once the time is up, your arrow has left your bow. Regret and self-criticism are common at this point but of limited value. Of course, it’s important to learn from this experience to do better next time, but much better to sit down and write that all out (and make sure you put those notes somewhere so that you will take action on them next time) than spend hours and days dwelling on your mistakes or worse, doubting your abilities. The way we get good at anything in life is by learning from our mistakes while still keeping belief in ourselves and keeping going.

Remember when you finally get your mark that there are also eddies and currents in the marking process. Universities have second markers, and moderation processes to minimise variance in grading, but if you sent the same exam to multiple ‘teams’ of markers, you would inevitably get some variation (it should be only a few percent) – some will be harsher, some more lenient. This means that it makes little sense to put weight on the difference between a ‘71’ and a ‘68’[7]. Of course, this is also why your degree mark isn’t based on one assessment – slight variations in marker harshness will average out over all the assessments you do[8]. This ‘long view’ (e.g. ‘This is just one exam out of ~30 assessments over the course of my degree – I’ll just do my best and learn from my mistakes for the next one’) is also a powerful way to not put too much importance on this one exam, which is all too easy when anxiety takes hold of us.

[5] Again, to a large extent but not completely: if you have a difficult personal life, or have to work to support yourself, this may limit your time available or just make it all harder.

[6] If you are worried about the level of anxiety you experience at times like this, contact your university wellbeing team (link for my students: wellbeing team).

[7] Let alone of course the complete illusion that is grade boundaries (although also, technically your modules don’t have grade boundaries, only your final degree mark).

[8] Due to the same principals you learn in your Statistics modules (i.e. why we study groups of people in research and take the mean, not just one person)

Living with the principle of ‘Control’

This way of looking at the world can be a difficult change to make and runs counter to how many of us think, but it can also be very powerful. More than just a tip for helping with exam anxiety, it can be a full-on philosophy of life! While this idea is present in many ancient philosophies and religions, my biggest influence is from the Greek and Roman ‘Stoics’, who made this central division one of their central guiding principles in life[8][9]:

“Freedom … is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” ― Epictetus

I was first introduced to these ideas roughly five years ago via the very readable ‘Guide to the good life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy’ which I recommend if you find these ideas interesting. Stoicism is getting very popular[10], and I’ve since read many more books on the topic such as the excellent and very popular ‘How to think like a Roman Emperor’[11], which draws lessons for modern life from the diaries of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius[12], comparing ancient techniques to modern cognitive behavioural therapy in a highly readable format. Also check out the brilliant article ‘Women don’t need stoicism. Stoicism needs women’ by Sharon Lebell. I have found these ideas very helpful for tackling anxiety in public speaking (you can’t control what your audience thinks of you), handling difficult people (you can’t control how other people behave or what they think of you, only your response and your behaviour) and just generally handling the stresses of life (e.g. you can’t control if you have a huge amount of work on at the moment, all you can do is take good care of yourself, get organised, and work within your capacity and time available to get it done to the best standard you can under the circumstances and with the time available). A final major area in which this all helps is the past: we can’t change what has happened or how we’ve behaved in the past (even if we did something REALLY stupid and embarrassing, or if we aren’t proud of what we submitted for the last assignment) – all we’ve got in our power is how we behave now – either just trying to do better next time or doing our best to repair a relationship by apologising[13].

[8] Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a religion as it doesn’t posit or speculate about any particular divine being, it is just a set of guidelines (suggestions actually, as it also encourages you to think for yourself) for how to live a good life. It is therefore compatible with any religion or none – the most famous stoics believed in Zeus!

[9] Apparently Descarte was heavily influenced by Stoicism too:

[10] Although it has also been slightly hijacked by movements focused only on the self-discipline aspects I really don’t like – see this great set of articles by Massimo Pigliucci on this - stick to the authors I’ve mentioned plus ‘Greg Sadler’ (basically anyone from the ‘Modern Stoicism’ team and anyone else they recommend)

[11] Also, both these books are good on Audible i.e. are read well.

[12] Who by the way lived through a pandemic.

[13] This logic doesn’t make very painful things in the past just go away – they may need processing by talking about them with a friend or a therapist – speak to the wellbeing team if you’re worried about anything like this.