Monday, July 15, 2013

My academic failures

In light of my recent academic success, the casual reader might think that things have always been this way. I'm going to let you into a little secret: unfortunately, they weren't.

In Bristol during the 1960s, there were three 'direct grant' schools for boys and four similar schools for girls; such schools received money directly from the local authority but could spend it how they liked. These schools generally demanded fees from their pupils and were considered elitist; students had to pass an entrance exam, which effectively replaced the dreaded 'eleven plus'. Alongside these schools existed a system of comprehensive schools to which were open for all. I should point out at this stage that the entrance exam was optional (as opposed to the eleven plus), so those who chose not to take it automatically went to a comprehensive. 

I like to jest that I was at the height of my intellectual prowess at the age of eleven. At that time, I was very quick in understanding problems and had a very good memory: these tools were sufficient for my then academic demands. I took the entrance exam for the direct grant schools and did so well that I was awarded a free scholarship for my school of choice, Bristol Grammar School. Those who did well were awarded partial scholarships or fee paying places at their school of choice; those who did less well were offered fee paying places at whichever school had room, and those who failed went to the comprehensives.

I did very well academically in my first year at BGS but my marks began to slip over the next few years. In my fourth year, I took my O-level exams and performed much worse than I should have done. I passed only four subjects and failed four (or possibly even five). I remember a painful meeting with my headmaster a few days before the autumn term of 1971 was to begin: I was about to ascend to the sixth form, but it wasn't clear whether I was going to study sciences or 'arts' (I had two passes in each). In retrospect, I should have repeated that academic year, but I don't remember that option being on the table. It might well have been offered, but I was too cocky at the time to even consider such an option and the loss of face would have been extreme; had there been such an offer, I probably would have ignored it and then would have forgotten about it. I was so young that even had I repeated a year, I would still be leaving school eventually before my eighteenth birthday.

So in 1971 I entered the sixth form, studying chemistry, biology and physics with maths, thus creating a precedent (as my form master put it) for studying a subject at A-level which I had failed at O-level (biology). My A-level exams in June 1973 weren't much better: I passed the first two subjects (albeit with low grades) but failed biology; I received a complementary O-level pass.

Again, in retrospect, I should have repeated that academic year, but now it was almost impossible as my parents had returned to Cardiff (thus I would lose the scholarship) and anyway I was dead set on going to Israel for a year (more of this later). Even had I gone to some sixth form college in Cardiff, a small event in October 1973 would have terminated this option (again, more of this later).

In June 1975, I sat my first year exams in university. Out of shame, I have never told anyone that I failed two of the five. I then spent two months in Israel and came back to resit those two exams. I did spend some time revising, but concentrated on areas which hadn't been covered in the first exams. Unfortunately, the resit exams were basically the same as the originals, so I didn't do well in these either. During the latter half of the second exam, I basically broke down and starting writing a letter to my examiners, pleading my case. Obviously I must have been sufficiently persuasive (or considered having sufficient potential) as I was allowed to continue my studies. I note that one other fellow student was passed onto a diploma course (ie downgraded) and one was dismissed altogether.

I then spent the next six months working for in the central analytic laboratory of Schweppes in Hendon, north west London (Sept 1975-March 1976). This period was very important to me as it allowed me to both do a job which I enjoyed and also gain some intellectual confidence. A lecturer said to me after my return to academia that all the students return confident after their first period working in industry.

The equivalent to my second year exams where held in March 1977, and for the first time in the decade, I felt confident and more importantly, prepared for them. I don't remember whether we received actual marks for those exams but I know that I did well. I haven't failed an exam since.

My final exams at university were in March 1978; again, I did well, but the final degree class was dependent upon course work as well as exams. Included in this were reports about five seminars which we attended; at the time, I don't think I realised that we would be expected to write reports which would count towards our final marks and so I didn't make many notes. I have a vague memory of sitting at my parents' new home in Cardiff and trying to write these reports several months after the events happened.

Anyway, I was awarded my B.Sc. (Honours) in Food Science, 1978, with the mark 'lower second class', which means an average of 60%. No one in the history of the department had ever been awarded a first class degree, 70% average. One student in my class was awarded a third class degree after he went to pieces in one of the final exams. I write 'awarded', but we never had a ceremony like in Heriot Watt. 

As I wrote at the beginning of this blog, I was very quick in understanding problems and had a very good memory: these tools were sufficient for my then academic demands. Unfortunately, I didn't realise for some years than being quick and having a good memory weren't sufficient; one has to learn how to synthesize the knowledge that one has in order to create something new and/or original (this sounds like some of the early material from my doctoral studies). In other words, I wasn't taught how to learn. No one was, but I imagine that those who had to work hard in order to understand the material that they were taught in primary school had fewer problems in studying at higher levels. I absorbed everything like a sponge in primary school with absolutely no effort, so I simply wasn't used to having to learn. It took me several years to achieve this, the 'seven years of darkness' as I call them, from about 1969-1976.

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