Is an exam more important than your life?

Placing enormous pressure on their children to do exceptionally well is a behaviour typical of families in Pakistan.

Ayesha Pervez July 10, 2012
It was the first day of the new school year. The morning assembly was about to begin and I saw one of my former classmates crying fervidly while surrounded by a group of students. Upon inquiry I discovered that she had failed the year and was repeating the previous grade. This heartbreaking scene is forever etched in my memory.

During my school years, the most dreaded word one could imagine was the word 'fail'.

No matter how confident I was in my performance there was still this unconquerable fear of hearing or seeing the word ‘fail’ on the day of results. The funny thing is, my parents were always encouraging and never strict - they were never overbearing when it came to my performance in exams. They did not pressurise me or my siblings to exclusively feature in the top three or get straight A’s. In spite of the relaxed environment we hailed from, we still managed to do very well.

Unfortunately parents like mine form a small demographic in Pakistan. Placing enormous pressure on their children to do exceptionally well, or achieve the highest rank or grade is a common behaviour found in most families.

This brings us to the growing trend of student suicides which is raving in Pakistan. There have been quite a number of them this year by students who succumbed to the pressure of exams or failure in them.

A sixth-grader allegedly committed suicide inside his house in Nazimabad in May this year. The officer said he apparently committed suicide by hanging himself by the ceiling fan out of fear of his parents as he had failed at school.

In Abbottabad, a teenage girl committed suicide in Kaghan Colony in June after failing her Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations. Mehvish had appeared in the SSC exam for the year 2012. However, when she found out that she had failed, she became so dejected that she locked herself in her bedroom and shot herself in the head with her father’s pistol.

Since failure signifies the loss of self-esteem, cessation of social connections and unfulfilled expectations, it is perceived as a lifelong and extremely stigmatising situation by young minds.

Unfortunately, the exam system in Pakistan may be to blame for the phenomenon.

The structure is such that most students will likely ‘take it easy’ all year around and then study intensively before their finals. This puts too much pressure at a single given time and if one considers uncontrollable factors such as illness and environmental constraints whereby a student may not be able to do well in the final paper, then it is certainly not yielding an accurate and fair result.

In western countries like the US and Canada, the system of assessment is used.

Assessment, which encompasses testing as well as evaluation, is an on-going process, a year long observation of a student and his abilities which includes extracurricular activities and classroom participation. The year round assessment system operates with monthly tests, observation of classroom participation and behaviour, peer-to-peer relationships, individual skills and in the case of senior students, a year-end essay or paper to be handed in. This arrangement encompasses a comprehensive performance by an individual student and thus may prove to be more pertinent and lucid.

Moreover, in the Western educational system, the tradition of encouragement and motivation, in the form of monthly certificates, awards and prizes is common. The strengths are highlighted while the weaknesses are gently broached. Often awards are tailor-made to suit individual students; a practice I observed in the secondary schools in my city.

In the US, there are hardly any suicides due to pressure of  grades or failing, (maybe because no one really fails) but rather due to bullying or other forms of discrimination or racism. Contrarily, the students in Pakistan have resorted to ending their lives due to the immense burden on them to achieve results they feel they are incapable of or from the stigma attached to failing.

Some may argue that this relaxed atmosphere and curbing of parental demands may cause the students to become lax concerning their studies; parents must be involved in each step of their child’s education.

However, there are other ways of reinforcing good results; motivation, encouragement, personal time and studying with them are some strategies that can help do that. Self-esteem and confidence must be pursued for the child as higher self-esteem has known to bring in better results.

I have come across several friends who were always worried about obtaining the ‘first position’, or ‘highest percentage’. One even told me that her parents declared that it must be the first position and nothing else. She was under considerable amount of stress.

I do believe parent's intentions are in good faith when they put the burden of such expectations on their child to make them perform their very best. However, in the case of seriously naive children, it may have devastating consequences, or produce personality defects such as low self-esteem and depression.

It would also help if the education system of Pakistan adopts the system of year-round assessment. It will go a long way in solving the dilemma of student anxiety and trauma; since they will be judged from a variety of factors and angles rather than from one earth-quavering, ground-breaking doomsday like the 'final' exam.

Read more by Ayesha here.
Ayesha Pervez Currently pursuing TESL in Canada, Ayesha Pervez is an English Literature graduate from the University of Karachi who has completed courses in short-fiction and journalism from Harvard University.
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