You couldn't pay me to be a teenager again. In fact, you'd have to come up with a rather large sum of cash before I agreed to willingly go back to any age before 25. It was fun at the time. Well, parts of it were. The parts that involved socials, school and university holidays, partying on a weeknight (or indeed, several weeknights in a row), and not having to deal with the overwhelmingly exhausting fiasco that is "adulting".

Other parts, like crushing insecurities, the annual hell that was the school cross country race, and homework were not fun. The worst experience of the lot was undoubtedly having to sit exams.

This week, thousands of Kiwi high school students began that marathon to the finish, dragging their feet into classrooms and school halls around the country to sit their end of year exams.

I remember those exam rooms, which were always either stuffy or Antarctic. I remember being expected to perform impressive feats of memory recall whilst the clock ticked closer and closer to that ominous moment when there was nothing more that could be done. Stealing wistful gazes out the window at increasingly sunny days, while exam supervisors prowled the aisles shooting dangerous looks at anyone who dared stare at anything other than their exam paper. Holding my head in my hands and willing my overwrought brain to remember that one fact or formula that had just flown out of it.


More vivid than the memories of exam rooms (and later, lecture theatres at university) are those of the weeks leading up to exam time. The sleep deprivation and anxiety, the annoyingly frequent experience of reading the same line five times and gleaning no meaning, the stress-eating and resultant breakouts. To use the vernacular of my youth, exam time sucked. Totally.

So I feel for those poor buggers. I especially feel for them because I know how futile the whole exercise is. Yes, I realise that universities have academic entrance standards for school leavers and that tertiary exams must be passed in order to receive a qualification but I can (quite happily) report that no one has ever asked me what grade I received for Year 11 Maths. Even my results from that great beast of an exam - Year 13 English - have been lost to the sands of time, languishing on a transcript I have filed somewhere, likely never to be seen again. Literacy and numeracy are important, exam results not so much.

My university results have also never been a topic of discussion. Once I had that cap on my head, how I fared in Psychology 101 became utterly irrelevant. And that is the main message I want to communicate to any student sitting an exam this month. It matters, but it also doesn't matter. And if it goes terribly, it's not the end of the world. There will be other chances, other pathways, other possibilities. It will be okay.

When I was at high school, I highly doubt that I would've taken my own advice. I would've remained as stressed as ever, convinced that it would be an absolute disaster if I received a bad mark. I was a perfectionist who held herself to unrelentingly high standards; a bad habit that I still grapple with today. It's not healthy, this stress we heap upon young people.

It's also unrealistic. Most adults, if they had to endure three months of unrelenting stress and sleep deprivation in the lead up to a series of pointless three-hour-long memory exercises, would consider leaving their jobs. If they had to go through the same palaver every year or every six months, they'd likely wonder whether they'd chosen the right career. So why do we force our young people to do it?

There's got to be a better way. While examinations have traditionally been a gold standard of measuring academic achievement, they undoubtedly favour some students over others. I'm quite good at exam-sitting, as I have the kind of brain that can remember large swathes of information for a short time - which enables me to cram - and I generally have a clear head in a crisis. While the examination process benefited me, however, it has also penalised many of my peers who perform better in other settings.

I know that the NCEA framework was meant to acknowledge and mitigate this, but constant assessment throughout the year hasn't been a great success either. I remember being taught specifically how to pass achievement standards, rather than how to engage with new information and learn new skills in a meaningful way.

On the flipside, when I left the NCEA system after two years (having started a year early) to take Cambridge examinations, I realised just how horrendous it was to have an entire year's worth of learning tested in a mere three to four hours, completed after many weeks of exhaustion.


The thought of it, even now, makes me nauseous.

I wonder whether we should instead explore a framework in which we allow our students to learn and grow without the artificiality of the examinations framework. In years to come, creativity and innovation will become vital skills. Perhaps creative and/or practical projects - with deadlines, to emulate real world pressures - would better prepare students for life in the age of automation.

Also, in an era when mental health and work-life balance are increasingly prominent topics of discussion, perhaps we should start to question exactly what the purpose of exams is, and what kind of world they are preparing our young people for. I suspect that they may have become outdated. In years to come we may look back at them as relics of an uncompromising era when people were expected to be human doings instead of human beings.

Not that any of that will bring comfort to those who are about to sit them. To that end, all I can say is good luck. Hang in there. And celebrate raucously when it's all over.