Posts Tagged ‘exam success’

Toxicity of Trying

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Are these really Andy Murray’s motivational notes? I really do hope they are not – but there has been no denial and they appear to have been written on the back of a letter to him.

Why do I hope they are not? Well, to me they appear toxic. Toxic to a top sports person seeking to be the best they can be (in other words winning every match).

As with all top sports people, I’m sure that Andy and his team pore over huge amounts of performance data to analyse what he is doing, how he is doing it, when he is doing it, etc.  So let’s undertake a little analyse of these motivational notes:

  • There are 61 words on the page
  • These are divided into 10 points
  • There are 4 words – which are either verbs or words with 3 or more letters – that appear three or more times – ‘be’ (4), ‘your’ (4), ‘the’ (3) and ‘try’ (3).

Of that analysis, the last point is the most striking and concerning for me.

Murray is going to ‘try’ to do something.

And almost of a third of the 10 points he is going to ‘try’ to achieve.

The word ‘try’ is one of the most unhelpful – perhaps even toxic – words that can be used in relation to performance management and improvement.

How many organisations publish goals that say they are going to ‘try’ to do something?

In your personal or professional life, what do you mean when you say you are going to ‘try’ to do something? Just say it to yourself now …

It usually means one of two things. Firstly, it could mean that you might have a go, but you’re not convinced that you will be able to achieve it – because of your personal abilities, your belief or your other time constraints. Secondly, it could mean that you have no intention of doing or will to do it, but you add the word ‘try’ in to avoid the discussion around the fact you will not be doing it.

It isn’t even a word that needs replacing – it just needs taking out.

“Try to be the one dictating”, becomes “Be the one dictating”.

“Try to keep him at the baseline make him move”, becomes “Keep him at the baseline make him move”.

How different do those sentences sound and feel without the word ‘try’?

I have worked with a number of people who have struggled to pass exams – I work with them on their personal approach and exam techniques. I am proud of my success in that every person who I have worked with – all who have previously failed the nominated exam – have all passed (or even gained Distinctions) with the work we have undertaken together.

One of the foundations of this approach is that I will not permit the use of the word ‘try’. As I have mentioned previously in one of my blogs, Yoda understand this.

In the Star Wars film, “The Empire Strikes Back”. Yoda, the small and strange looking Jedi Master is training Luke Skywalker. Yoda sets him numerous challenges and tests to help mould the youth into a Jedi. When Luke is given one particularly challenging task, he responds to Yoda that he will ‘try’.  “No,” Yoda retorts, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

As Murray’s team continues to mould him into the best tennis player he can be, they need to address the ‘try’ – “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Incidentally, Murray lost the match.

You might not be a tennis player, or taking an exam – but the principle is the same – so when do you use the word ‘try’ and what impact can it have for you if you were to drop it?


An examination of writer’s block

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

One of my early blogs related to how I coach people who are struggling to pass exams – not because they don’t have the knowledge, but because they panic or talk themselves out of it, or something similar. This work is often with CIPD candidates, and I worked with another such person in the lead up to the exam at the end of January.

One specific aspect we worked on together was that of writer’s block. Have you been in that situation? You have a pen in your hand or your fingers are hovering over the keyboard with that pristine piece of paper or the blank screen … and nothing happens. Where do you start? What do you start with? The longer you wait, the harder it can become – you convince yourself it will not happen, and so of course it doesn’t.

Perhaps the starting point for all this is our brain – and how we have been trained to use it since childhood.  At school we were taught to be very reliant on our left brain – using its logic, detail and patterns – however, the creativity and flow comes from the right brain. Sadly, the left brain doesn’t get the right brain, and vice versa – they don’t play together well.

The consequence of this is that if we attempt to generate ideas and write creatively (with our right brain) and structure and edit our work at the same time (with our left brain) it often doesn’t work very well. Our efforts become victim to our brains’ battles … and the paper or screen remains blank and our fingers are like living statues.

As an aside, do you know what your personal preference is for the use of your left or right brain? This fun experiment from Youtube can tell you!

The other increasingly evident issue for those taking written time-bound examinations is their normal reliance on computers. The younger members of society have been brought up on computers. They have never had to get a document just right from the start – pen and paper or typewriters were never very forgiving if you got your sequencing wrong. Secondly, writing with a pen for 2 or 3 hours is hard work if it’s not something you are used to – another aspect that if dwelt on, confidence can start to ooze out of their pen far quicker than any ink does.

Those are the problems. Here are some top tips to experiment with:

1              If it happens don’t say to yourself (more than once), “I’ve got writers block”. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and make it much more difficult to change your state. Move around in your chair a little, stretch your hands and use one of the following techniques which you will already have tried and tested …

2              The University of Reading suggests you should, put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back and relax for a moment. If you’re in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far – what happens next? If you have to remember formulae, try associating them with pictures or music while revising. If you really can’t progress with this answer, leave a gap. It will probably come back to you once you are less anxious.”  Becoming less anxious is easier said than done, you may say to yourself – possibly, but here are some tips to assist you.

3              Warwick University Counselling Services suggest, “brain-storming or making a mind map of the information”, together with, “Try to ignore any critical voices in your head. Don’t aim for ‘perfect’; remember your objective is to get yourself working again.” I have outlined the issue of ‘being perfect’ in previous blogs, together with how to address it.

4              And ‘perfection’ means 100% – but you don’t need 100%! The majority of exams require between 40% and 70% to pass.  Remind yourself of this. You can (and will!) make mistakes and drop marks – it happens with everyone in every exam.

5              Author Seth Godin says, “No one ever gets talkers block”. I’m not sure that’s completely accurate, but I understand what he means.  If you are stuck, start talking to yourself as if you were talking to your tutor or explaining the ides to a friend or colleague.

6              Another option is to start in the middle of an essay. Leave the first page blank and come back to it later. Report writers will complete the Executive Summary last of all, even though it is at the start of the report – consider completing your introduction as the last part of your essay.

7              Perhaps you are an auditory person – you learn and are motivated through listening. If so, there may be a song that helps you. For me, the Eagles’ “Do Something” fires me out of inaction in certain circumstances. I hum or sing the chorus and off I go! Here are some of the lyrics:

But when I feel like giving up
And I’m ready to walk away
In the stillness, I can hear
A voice inside me say
Do something
Do something

Don’t leave it up for someone else
Don’t feel sorry for yourself
Why don’t you do something?
Do something
It’s not over
No, it’s never too late
Do something
Don’t wait too long
Even if it’s wrong
You’ve got to do something
Do something  

8   Finally, what’s to say you have to use every line on the page? In most exams you are marked for content rather than the number of lines you use or don’t use. Your take on normality and acceptability will possibly make it harder for you to only use alternate lines, or leaving 5 lines between paragraphs – but try it. This will give you the chance to go back and make additional points if you wish to – thus releasing the concern of having to get it right first time.

One or more of these ides will help you to start writing something meaningful – and once you get that first point or sentence down it becomes a whole lot easier.

Final tip – don’t leave this until the day of the exam to practice. Try them out beforehand (as suggested in Tip 1). You will then know which work for you – which will give you additional confidence as you wait to turn over the exam paper …

Do you have other tips that work?

Let me know which ones work for you.


State of Education or Learning State?

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I can recall 5 or so years ago sitting in a very boring meeting. I can actually remember attending a few, but we will focus on this one in particular for the moment. The energy level was as low as the land level in Death Valley. And I was due to present. What could I do? I looked around the room for some props. There was a fake fire in the room with some pieces of wood on it.  As I was introduced, I went and picked up two of the pieces of wood and tapped a beat with them on the side of the table. “Just say what you see”, I enthused, with a very poor impersonation of Roy Walker, the original host of Catchphrase.  Unfortunately, no-one ‘got it’. “Logarithms!” I enthused once more, and tapped the beat once more perhaps thinking I needed to do it again in order for people to ‘get it’. It did, however, change the mood of the meeting and, having rebuilt the fire, I delivered my presentation and achieved what I wanted to.

That is the only time in my life I can recall having made use of my Third Year (now Year 9) Maths input on Logarithms. I do accept the link is tenuous, but it really is the closest I have got to using that information. But what was the point of them (and the same goes for cosines, too)?

I was reminded of this experience when I read an answer to a parent’s question by Chris Woodhead in The Times (25 July 2010). As you may well be aware, Mr Woodhead used to be the Chief Inspector of Schools here in England (and possibly other parts of the UK).  He is currently the chairman of a private schools group. Mr Woodhead was making the point that – regarding English Literature classes – “The aim should not be to develop ‘critical thinking skills’”, and added that children, “should not be encouraged to express their opinions on the texts. Who cares what they think or feel?’” Well, actually, I do – and I suspect others do, too.

We need to be valuing and developing these skills from an early age – and others such as rapport building, empathy, effective communication, emotional intelligence … I could go on. From a holistic perspective it would create a far more mature society, and from a practical perspective perhaps we wouldn’t need to have the likes of “This drink may be hot“ written on the side of a take-out cup of coffee.

I have been in Wakefield today – taking, waiting for and collecting my 17-year old son from a Football Refereeing Course. As someone interested in learning, I have been impressed with the content of the Course. It has a good balance of theory and practice, and it has an obvious practical application. He has now passed the theoretical aspects and needs to pass the practical aspects by refereeing some matches. Having discussed the Course with him, it is apparent that he has fared well so far. He has fared well because he has been able to demonstrate skills such as critical thinking, effective communication and conflict management to name just three.  These skills have been developed in part at school but more so at home.

And this is where, in my humble opinion, our schooling system is failing society. The development or achievement of such skills in school is difficult to measure, and so they are unlikely to find any prominence in ‘League Tables’. But what gets measured generally happens. So exam results prevail. And our children will therefore continue to be measured on how well they understand Cosines and Logarithms.

The lead article in the News Review of today’s (15 August 2010) Sunday Times is an article about how the actress Imogen Stubbs and husband – film director Trevor Nunn – tried to help their daughter with her AS level in Theatre Studies. They discovered that they were more of a hindrance than a help.  Ms Stubbs continuing investigation of the matter showed her that the course work and study aids were aimed at enabling her daughter to get an ‘A’ grade by following the required “tick-box culture”, rather than thinking about the literature itself. Many pupils told her that they never actually read the texts – they just used study aids and the internet.

Over the next couple of weeks the annual national GCSE and A Level analysis and frenzy will take place. We will be informed how this year’s pass rate compares to other years, and individuals will find out whether they have achieved their coveted places at Universities. Again in today’s Sunday Times there is a report that leading companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Price Waterhouse Coopers are running non-graduate trainee schemes for promising people who do not achieve a place at University or who do not want to saddle themselves with student debt. These companies are telling applicants that they, “can end up in similar jobs with similar salaries to graduates”.

Perhaps this will bring about a different perspective on education and learning. Perhaps it will help shape an approach that involves both theoretical and practical learning for all qualifications. And perhaps then we can move away – once and for all – from Mr. Woodhead’s view that a child, during the foundation stage of their life of learning, should not be taught how to critically think, should not express their opinions and should not have their feelings valued.


Handling weather fronts

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

I was very sad to see that Alex “Hurricane” Higgins had died at the weekend. In the early 1980’s I really enjoyed watching him play. He had such talent as a snooker player. He could pot balls from difficult positions with such apparent ease. He didn’t indulge in conformity. I have very fond memories of discussions with my dad as to his qualities when compared with the likes of Steve Davis – who my dad particularly liked to watch. I suspect that part of my fascination with Alex Higgins was that he was totally the opposite of me in so many ways and, at that time, I wished I could have been like him in.

Knowing more about him now, I am very pleased that I wasn’t and am not like him. As the years progressed I became more aware of his unpredictability, his mercurial temperament, his alcohol-related behaviour. He had a chaotic lifestyle.

When I read about such individuals, I always wonder whether with a little more assistance they could have lead a more organised and less chaotic life. I then wonder whether by doing that, it would have stunted their phenomenal talent and inventiveness. Does the sheer brilliance of talent have to go with a lifestyle of chaos and unpredictability? Are the two inseparable?

I don’t know. But I do know that most of us at certain times in our lives find ourselves in situations where we need a little help in order to steer ourselves through stormy situations or mildly chaotic periods. And this same weekend I had a phone call from one such person who I had recently assisted. Jayne – I will call her – has absolutely nothing in common with Alex Higgins, and in at least one way she is completely different to him – she realised when she needed a little assistance.

Last month – 22 June to be precise – I blogged about how I was assisting a number of people with their preparations for their CIPD examinations. One person in particular – Jayne, I will call her – had explained to me that when she read the exam paper, the questions, “just became a jumble of words making no sense”.  Jayne had failed the exams the first time around, having walked out after half an hour. When we first made contact, there were three weeks to go before the exam and she was panicking about what she needed to do. She was finding the whole thing very stressful – made worse by problems she was having at work.

Three weeks wasn’t long to have an impact. We had telephone chats every two or three days. We had short term action plans and longer term action plans (but never longer than three weeks!). I gave her micro-teaches on aspects of Transactional Analysis (TA), Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Emotional Intelligence (EI) to help her understand what was happening for her and how she could start to manage the situation more effectively. I devised a set of questions (see 22 June entry) to assist Jayne with focusing whilst in the exam.

I spoke to Jayne a few days after the exam and she thought that she had given it her best shot, and a few days later she emailed me (see 10 June entry) to thank me for my assistance.

I didn’t expect to hear from Jayne again – but then she rang at the weekend. She rang to say that she had passed, and not only had she passed, she had achieved a distinction (over 70%)!  She was very pleased – and wanted to thank me for my support. I was overjoyed for her, and was smiling about it for the whole weekend – the effort that she had put in had really paid off. It illustrated a few points for me:

  • There are times when we all need help – and those of us who are prepared to seek it out will generally flourish.
  • Never give up – it’s never too late to start to address something – (but it is easier with more time!).
  • By being open to new learning and skills we can achieve much in what appears to be a short space of time – and can create positive ‘anchors’ that will assist us in future endeavours.

How could you be more effective with a little assistance or a little more focus?


From a jumble of words to a meaningful question …

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

I have been coaching a number of CIPD candidates recently as they prepare to undertake their exams. Understandably, they have varying degrees of trepidation as the exam date approaches. What is less understandable is the level of support they are given by their providers as to how to deal with exam questions. It appears to be non-existent for some of them.

Doing an exam can be a bit like taking a penalty in a football or hockey match when success depends on scoring – nothing is quite like the real thing, but practicing and having a structure, technique or model to use can give you the best chance of success.

One person described to me how when they started to read the questions, they looked difficult and as a result, “just became a jumble of words making no sense”. Not a useful state when tacking an exam. Having a structure can help a person to maintain a cognitive approach whilst they are experiencing all sorts of unhelpful emotions. And so the words start to make sense again.

To help individuals in this situation, I have created a number of questions designed to guide them through each exam question and enable them to answer them as effectively as possible. I’d be interested to hear from others as to whether they work, or whether I’m missing anything. Or do they need tweaking?

1. What is the question asking me to do / what is the product?

2. What is the subject?

3. Who is the audience?

4. What do I know about the subject (relative to the audience)? (this is where you board blast / brainstorm as many different ideas as possible – don’t judge any of them, just create ideas – however seeming useful / useless / alternative at this stage) 

5. What are the important parts from Q5 to include in my answer?

6. In what structure will I present this information?

Let me know what you think – I will be grateful for any feedback.