Finding a new approach
By Richard Axtell
When I began my counselling course, there was one thing I did not prepare myself for: assessment.
It makes sense that there would be an assessment of some kind. I was hoping for a simple test, perhaps a multiple choice questionnaire. I have always been very good at ticking boxes. Having reached the end of Unit One in my course, I found myself facing five essay questions. Not particularly difficult essay questions, just summarising what I have learnt so far on the course. My reaction to these questions, however, was very interesting.
As I stared at these questions, I was suddenly a teenager again, waiting in a line outside G-block at my high school. This was the line to go into the main hall for examinations. We would shuffle in together to our assigned table and chair – distanced enough from other tables and chairs to prevent cheating. Everyone would be silent as a teacher walked down the aisles between the tables and placed an exam paper on each one. I still remember the quiet swoosh of the paper settling on the tables around me. I would count down the tables as the teacher, stone faced, expression blank, got closer. Three… two… one…
Then I would stare at the paper as it was placed in front of me and wait for the teacher to tell us we could begin. Sometimes the papers were warm in my hands and smelled like fresh ink – they had come straight from the photocopier.
Why did I think of that?
I am not surprised that this is where my head went when I was faced with the prospect of examination.
Even though I have done exams since then, high school is when I felt the stakes were at the highest. Later I would learn that wasn’t necessarily the case, but back then I had spent three years preparing for my GCSEs. Throughout those three years, we were told constantly that GCSEs were the bedrock of our entire life. The results I got from those exams would choose which college I got into, which determined my university, which determined my future. My future rested on my shoulders in those few precious moments.
No wonder I was stressed!
Dealing with it
My mind went back to high school because, once again, I feel like a lot rests on my shoulders with these assessments. I don’t want to fumble the first step in my new career choice. To do that would be to fail before I have really begun.
How am I dealing with this? Well, my first plan was to hide. I turned off my computer and pretended that the questions did not exist for a week or so. (Essay number one requires me to write about the defence mechanism ‘denial’. Ironic.)
Obviously, this wasn’t working. The assessment wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t making any progress. A new plan was needed.
In the book Can’t Even: How Millennials became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Peterson writes about standardised testing: ‘It’s not a test of your intelligence, but a test of your ability to take this particular test.’
This quote has helped me re-shape my approach to this assessment. Using the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique of ‘coping self-statements’ (which I have learnt about for essay number three) I am turning my irrational, negative thoughts about this exam (for example: “my entire counselling career rests on passing this single exam”) into rational, more positive thoughts (“This exam does not represent my future, or reflect on me as a person”).
Just writing this blog post has allowed me to reflect on my feelings and start putting my new perspective into place.
This isn’t the last assessment of my abilities. I am just at the start of this journey and it is a long road ahead. That being said, I would say I am more ready for that now.
I might even say I am looking forward to it.