On Mock Exams

I have a mock exam tomorrow, and I can’t bring myself to care much about it.

A utilitarian approach


Consider this: The consequences of doing well in a mock exam are recognition from your Director of Studies / professor, possibly recognition from your peers and smug self-satisfaction. The consequences of doing poorly are the opposite, which don’t really matter[1] unless you are incredibly keen, need good standing with your professor to negotiate for placements or will be given extra work as a result (unlikely). None of these seem to be true for me at the moment. Competing with the mock are other time-sensitive issues that do matter, such as job applications and the politics and history essays due next week. This is the problem: that there is an opportunity cost to studying for the mock, and it is unclear why, based solely on mock-exclusive outcomes, the mock takes priority over any of the other things I mentioned.

Of course it is unfair to base the utility of the mock wholly on its face result and the consequences of that – the whole point of the mock is to test how well you know the material and through so doing encourage you to learn more of it. Understanding the material better then helps you make the most of the next stage of learning (because you won’t be completely lost), prepare for the end-of-year exam[2] and understand more about your subject and the world. These, however, can be achieved by studying independently after the mock. Whether or not you will do that is a different question. Having mocks does push you to study at least a little more than if there were no mocks, and for that reason I am grateful we have one.

Two other often understated benefits are identifying what you don’t understand and simulating exam conditions. Often you may think you know something, but you don’t. Reading about the radius of the Earth and going ‘ah, yes of course I know it’s 6400km’ doesn’t mean you actually know it. Visually recognising something is not the same as being able to recall the information, much less use it. Exams help identify the concepts that you’re struggling with, and identifying them early on has more than proportional benefits especially in subjects such as maths and economics where ideas are built on and with other ideas. If you don’t understand how adding fractions works, you will not fare well with more advanced algebra. The second benefit – simulating exam conditions – is seemingly more specific, but is still important and widely applicable. The pressures of working to time in a relatively strict environment need specific preparation. Many people screw up critical assessments because they are stressed, myself included. Although mocks are clearly not as pressurising, they give you a better idea physically and emotionally what the exam will be like. The closer the simulation, the better it will prepare you for the real thing. That’s why musicians rehearse performances in their head in as much detail as possible.

Note, however, that you get these benefits even if you don’t study much for the mock. In a way, if you don’t study as much, you are likely to simulate dealing with stress better as long as you don’t just give up. The only downside is that the number of things you don’t understand will most likely be large enough for the information to be unhelpful, and you may dismiss it because you know you didn’t really study anyway so y’know, you would’ve known it if you’d studied and you’ll study when it really matters, so you’re fine.

(Oh, and exploring ideas can also be exciting. Varian’s Intermediate Microeconomics is excellent – clear, insightful and occasionally funny. More on that later.)

Low-stakes mock exams are, in a way, a step towards the ideal exam: one that does not have consequences so great that it causes stress, but pushes people to dig deeper and gives them feedback on what they do and don’t understand. They also give more realistic assessments of how well people understand the material. People who understand the material will do well. As for those who don’t know it because they didn’t revise – they didn’t know it well enough in the first place. Contrast this with what usually happens with school exams: students often cram in the week prior, get ridiculously stressed because the stakes are high, and forget most things after because they didn’t learn it properly and because there is no follow up. Of course, the usefulness of knowing the material is debatable (it still is at university, especially if you’re not going into that subject area), but that’s for another post. Going further in this direction seems to point towards having more regular low-stakes assessments instead of a final exam. This has problems of its own, but on surface it seems to be a much better way of accurately assessing people’s performance and, more importantly, helping people learn better. Sounds good to me.

[1] Here I mean it doesn’t matter functionally. Respect and responsibility is treated separately. A responsible student should prepare for a mock regardless because studying for and attempting the exam is part of the student’s job.

[2] The extent to which these matter all depend on how much you care about your degree and what result you’re happy with.

sleeping with a notebook 

no, about to fall asleep – you, not the notebook – with a pen in hand
exhausted but kept awake by the flashing light in your head
that keeps you scribbling pages and pages
you notice this happens a lot on planes, or when you can’t do the other work that you’ve been in the belly of for the past two, three months or longer, usually
in times like this, after a drought comes
a hurricane of near illegible characters
as when you’re half awake and trying to pour your recent dreams into reality
unfortunately illegible doesn’t translate well
doesn’t help that you usually write with your eyes closed
now you really can’t sleep

Re-Intro, evolution, and sources of inspiration

With every re-launch comes the faux-obligatory intro: it’s a new direction, a different person, and a renewed hope in holding out. Here’s my piece, complete with the About Page add-ons. Do leave a message, I’d love to get to know you!

Maths + Music + me = <3

I’m Jessica, a writer and Maths-turned Economics student at the University of Cambridge. Fresh off my first job and the realisations that go with it, I restarted this blog as ‘Into Work and the Word’ to commit to writing, to confront my fear of failure, and to convince myself that blogging isn’t that scary. (Is it?)

I hope to write about my experience as young Christian finding my way in the world: through studying in college, grappling with vocation / calling (work), navigating through first jobs from internships to freelancing to entrepreneurship, and scrambling to deal with whatever comes up in my daily walk with God. There will also be much poetry. :)

‘Into Work and the Word’ thus refers to going into work while immersing oneself in the Word of God (and working at the craft of writing, if you like). I do not intend this blog to be exclusively for a Christian audience, and hope that you will enjoy reading these posts regardless of your faith.


Even more about this blog: This blog (b. 2009) has gone through many phases of being put down and picked up again. It started as a general outlet, became a sparsely curated poetry blog, and then tried to be a thought outlet but failed several times because I couldn’t be sure it was a non-obnoxious thing to do. And I really didn’t want to be seen as obnoxious. The turning point to blog my thoughts (Week of 7 June, 2015) came when our pastor highlighted Psalm 40 (quoted is verse 3):

He put a new song in my mouth,

a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,

and put their trust in the Lord.

With this I realised that we are all given a voice, and we should use it to do what is good – i.e. to glorify God. In writing my voice is at its most sincere, and since I’ve been writing a lot anyway, I thought it would be good to blog as well. With that, I pray that you will be blessed by these posts.

‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.’ – James Keller

A few sources of inspiration:

The Bible: God’s Word, the truth, beautiful beyond measure. Speaks for itself.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

Seth’s Blog & Medium – drew me back to blogging after a long hiatus. They inspired me to learn to write engaging posts to make people think and maybe even make their day.

Annoying Precision – Qiaochu Yuan’s notes on blogging as a way to learn first prompted me to record my learning experiences in Evernote, and I hope to bring some notes that may benefit from discussion here in future.

Gowers’s Weblog – showed me how one mathematician thinks, written with beautiful clarity.

There are many people I could mention here, but I don’t have their permission so I’d rather not.

6. I looked out to the quiet night

I looked out to the quiet night

and thought I saw the One

But Nature did turn on the light

and lo! my love was gone.

The same way does the tick of Time

unveil the ugly Truth

Yet Love prevails above all odds

That is, if it is pure.

A poem from 2012. ‘This one was inspired by an entry in ‘Emotions’ from the book ‘Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down – the Science of Murphy’s Law’ by Richard Robinson. This book tries to provide a rational explanation of the more trivial – or not so trivial – things in life.’

A Wild Character Appears!

I went for a short walk at noon, mind filled with advice from famed writers, most notably Ernest Hemingway:

‘As a writer you should not judge. You should understand. … You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.’

The elevator stopped on the 17th floor, where a cauliflower-haired woman was waiting. She looked at the floor indicator by the ceiling, peered inside the lift, and made a few hand gestures before squirrelling in and inspecting the floor buttons. ‘Yes, that’s right…yes…pineapple,’ she said, and returned to tapping compulsively on her phone. The lift went down a few more floors. She continued her tapping, almost rhythmic but not quite, right index finger pressing into the screen. She sighed, paused, and turned to look at me. I was already looking at her, and she quickly turned back to her phone before checking which floor we were at. Nope, she couldn’t get out just yet. She shook her head and sighed again.

Then there was a man with droopy eyelids in an oversized white T-shirt, plodding across the plaza, head down, with uneven gait.

Then there was the boy at the supermarket- perhaps 5 or 6 – tenderly grasping a turtle soft toy by its neck as he waited in line with his sunglass-touting mother.

And then there was the amateur scrabbling for her notebook, awestruck at the wealth of characters around her that she had neglected for so many years. Such is the ignorance of youth.

4. Restlessness

It begins with a trill of the mind, of the finger,

Getting up, sitting down, getting up, walking out

Walking back, sitting down, getting up, trilling continues

Sitting down, shrill fast-forward, getting up, finger taps

On the keyboard, on the table, on the forehead, on the keyboard,

Forming a rhythm that I can’t get out out out of

Like a chipmunk going slower, bashing its head on an acorn

Quick succession of short blips, flips, trips, jitters –

I guess it’s what people call coffee.

Disclaimer: it’s not actually coffee.