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‘You have to self-motivate when the world has stopped around you’ – School pupils share exam highs and lows

School exams
Lucia Savage and Louis Cooper from Millburn Academy.

The pandemic threw school life into chaos, but S6 pupils Lucia Savage and Louis Cooper are pretty upbeat about the changes it has brought.

We caught up with the Millburn Academy pupils, fresh out of their exam in advanced higher history.

In the next couple of weeks, Lucia has exams in advanced higher English and higher economics, and Louis in higher economics and higher business.

Prelims this year are a different beast to 2021. Last year, school exams were split across two sessions, a fortnight apart, in classrooms. This approach was intended to minimise the amount of time pupils were packed together in a hall. It also meant pupils who were self isolating wouldn’t miss both parts of the exam.

As life returns to some version of normal, prelims are back to the hall and official invigilators.

The pandemic left exam halls empty across Scotland. Image: Shutterstock.

Like many pupils, both found time management one of the trickier challenges. Then there was also the practicalities of wearing a mask for a three-hour exam.

“It steams up my glasses,” laughs Lucia. “It’s not ideal but I guess it’s worth it.”

Like Louis, Lucia felt that there was something comforting about returning to traditional school exams.

“It felt more real,” she says. “Before, you were sitting in your normal classroom doing an exam that could actually change your life. This way feels like we’re working up to something bigger.”

Open doors

Returning to normal is a relief – even if it’s also a bit stressful. However, the pandemic delivered some unexpected benefits. Both pupils have nothing but praise for their teachers.

“The teachers have gone out of their way to ensure that we’re comfortable,” says Lucia.

“With Covid it became okay to email your teacher if you needed help with something. They were so open and accessible.”

“I think the school got used to the Covid reality that kids weren’t studying in normal hours,” agrees Louis.

Louis took two ‘crash’ highers this year – meaning he took highers in subjects he had not previously studied at National 5 level.

“The teachers were so helpful in getting me caught up, ensuring I had enough preparation and support.”

School exams
Pupils of Millburn Academy say teachers went ‘above and beyond’ to help them prepare for school exams.

Both pupils point out that teachers have developed their technical skills under pressure, and are using Google Classroom to its full potential. Lucia adds that students who might feel shy putting their hand up in class, feel more comfortable asking questions privately online.

Escape from reality

There were hard times too. In 2020, Louis’ National 5 results fell short of his projected grades set by teachers. This was later corrected – a story that repeated across the country.

You worry that history will repeat itself.”

Louis Cooper, Millburn Academy

However, it weighed on his mind last year in the eight weeks between receiving his projected grades and his final SQA-approved grades.

“You worry that history will repeat itself,” he says.

During that time, trips to the gym helped Louis manage the stress. In lockdown, even getting 15 minutes longer in bed helped.

Both Louis and Lucia enjoy acting too.

“It’s a nice escape from reality,” laughs Lucia.

“I think all teenagers’ mental health took a bit of a hit during lockdown. There are things you miss out on, like Christmas dances, and you miss the social side of your life.

“Young people had the pressure of exams, online school, issues like not having the right technology or good wifi, or maybe having a tough home life. I’d say all those problems were amplified.”

Lucia Savage and Louis Cooper are doing their prelim exams.  Image: Shutterstock.

Taste of university

Now, the two are looking towards a bright future. Both have applied to law school.

“Yesterday’s exam felt like the shortest time of my life but the wait to hear back from UCAS is definitely the longest,” says Louis.

Yet in many ways, lockdown gave students an early taste of university life. Online learning meant much more independent study and discipline.

“You have to learn the techniques that work for you, taking notes and testing out what works,” says Louis.

“Having time to compare strategies was helpful.”

“You have to self-motivate at a time when the world has stopped around you,” adds Lucia.

“It’s similar to what we’ll face at uni, when you have to do things for yourself. In that sense, the pandemic has prepared us well.”

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