Is an exam more important than your life?

Published: July 10, 2012

Failure signifies a loss of self-esteem and is perceived as a stigmatising situation by young minds. PHOTO: AFP

It was the first day of the new school year. The morning assembly was about to begin and I saw one of my former classmates crying fervidly while surrounded by a group of students. Upon inquiry I discovered that she had failed the year and was repeating the previous grade. This heartbreaking scene is forever etched in my memory.

During my school years, the most dreaded word one could imagine was the word ‘fail’.

No matter how confident I was in my performance there was still this unconquerable fear of hearing or seeing the word ‘fail’ on the day of results. The funny thing is, my parents were always encouraging and never strict – they were never overbearing when it came to my performance in exams. They did not pressurise me or my siblings to exclusively feature in the top three or get straight A’s. In spite of the relaxed environment we hailed from, we still managed to do very well.

Unfortunately parents like mine form a small demographic in Pakistan. Placing enormous pressure on their children to do exceptionally well, or achieve the highest rank or grade is a common behaviour found in most families.

This brings us to the growing trend of student suicides which is raving in Pakistan. There have been quite a number of them this year by students who succumbed to the pressure of exams or failure in them.

A sixth-grader allegedly committed suicide inside his house in Nazimabad in May this year. The officer said he apparently committed suicide by hanging himself by the ceiling fan out of fear of his parents as he had failed at school.

In Abbottabad, a teenage girl committed suicide in Kaghan Colony in June after failing her Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinations. Mehvish had appeared in the SSC exam for the year 2012. However, when she found out that she had failed, she became so dejected that she locked herself in her bedroom and shot herself in the head with her father’s pistol.

Since failure signifies the loss of self-esteem, cessation of social connections and unfulfilled expectations, it is perceived as a lifelong and extremely stigmatising situation by young minds.

Unfortunately, the exam system in Pakistan may be to blame for the phenomenon.

The structure is such that most students will likely ‘take it easy’ all year around and then study intensively before their finals. This puts too much pressure at a single given time and if one considers uncontrollable factors such as illness and environmental constraints whereby a student may not be able to do well in the final paper, then it is certainly not yielding an accurate and fair result.

In western countries like the US and Canada, the system of assessment is used.

Assessment, which encompasses testing as well as evaluation, is an on-going process, a year long observation of a student and his abilities which includes extracurricular activities and classroom participation. The year round assessment system operates with monthly tests, observation of classroom participation and behaviour, peer-to-peer relationships, individual skills and in the case of senior students, a year-end essay or paper to be handed in. This arrangement encompasses a comprehensive performance by an individual student and thus may prove to be more pertinent and lucid.

Moreover, in the Western educational system, the tradition of encouragement and motivation, in the form of monthly certificates, awards and prizes is common. The strengths are highlighted while the weaknesses are gently broached. Often awards are tailor-made to suit individual students; a practice I observed in the secondary schools in my city.

In the US, there are hardly any suicides due to pressure of  grades or failing, (maybe because no one really fails) but rather due to bullying or other forms of discrimination or racism. Contrarily, the students in Pakistan have resorted to ending their lives due to the immense burden on them to achieve results they feel they are incapable of or from the stigma attached to failing.

Some may argue that this relaxed atmosphere and curbing of parental demands may cause the students to become lax concerning their studies; parents must be involved in each step of their child’s education.

However, there are other ways of reinforcing good results; motivation, encouragement, personal time and studying with them are some strategies that can help do that. Self-esteem and confidence must be pursued for the child as higher self-esteem has known to bring in better results.

I have come across several friends who were always worried about obtaining the ‘first position’, or ‘highest percentage’. One even told me that her parents declared that it must be the first position and nothing else. She was under considerable amount of stress.

I do believe parent’s intentions are in good faith when they put the burden of such expectations on their child to make them perform their very best. However, in the case of seriously naive children, it may have devastating consequences, or produce personality defects such as low self-esteem and depression.

It would also help if the education system of Pakistan adopts the system of year-round assessment. It will go a long way in solving the dilemma of student anxiety and trauma; since they will be judged from a variety of factors and angles rather than from one earth-quavering, ground-breaking doomsday like the ‘final’ exam.

Read more by Ayesha here.

Ayesha Pervez

Ayesha Pervez

Currently pursuing TESL in Canada, Ayesha Pervez is an English Literature graduate from the University of Karachi who has completed courses in short-fiction and journalism from Harvard University.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sane

    100% agreed. Will add that parents and family members must not treat their kids like horse in a race on which they have bet in the race course.Recommend

  • Habibies

    Sorry Dear Suicide! I Love my Self & my Life alot … MuaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahRecommend

  • Church of Euthanasia

    Suicide is a choice and must be respected. No one has the right to stop anyone from dying if they choose to do so. Recommend

  • Namoos

    This is a fact that the young boys and girls at Pakistan watch those television serials, dramas and movies which are not in accordance with their age, they include some kind of terrorism, since internet and television are so common these days that children get there without any difficulty and watch terrorism videos which compel them to think that when there is no other option left then last option is suicide, this thinking is wrong, parents should keep an eye on their children and arrange some good and positive activities for them.Recommend

  • Farhan Virk

    Dear Church of Euthanasia, Suicide is a haram thing declared by all religions of this world and in case you’re an atheist then you shouldn’t even think of it because you don’t have any options after this life. Thanks!Recommend

  • Hindu Indian

    @Church of Euthanasia: I would like to highlight you are messing things, the point Author is talking about is that the “Education System” as a whole is creating an environment which puts unnecessary pressure on the children( and parents) and thats making kids commit suicide. Dont compare Euthanasia with this. If the education system (both India and Pakistan) accepts students learning capabilities( and not the mugging capabilities) i am sure the suicide rates will fall.

    @Author: A very nice attempt on exposing the problems, i think in these topics you can try to reach out to a bigger audience like us, we face the same problem in India too.Recommend

  • Hakeem

    Indeed a big pressing problem but alas, no one had any idea about this problem in my childhood and the result is my confused personality. Formative years of child should be treated with utmost care, neither too strict nor too relaxed. It is a tight rope walk for parentsRecommend

  • Haris Javed

    there are many private schools in Pakistan who claim to have employed Round-Year Assessment Program by introducing
    1) weekly tests
    2) monthly tests
    3) mid term exams
    4) send-ups
    5) and then annual exams!!
    but they don’t consolidate marks from each evaluation into results of Big Day i-e annual exam result day!
    that’s where they are wrong.. .something contrary to the principles of Round-Year Assessment Program.
    and as far as Government Schools are concerned
    alaaas just leave it.. .Recommend

  • Sane

    @To All
    Keep the debate to the subject. Subject is not suicide.Recommend

  • Mohammad ali Gaad

    Ya even i listened from news that in Pakistan every year ratio of pupils who Suicide is 80 % and the cause is also same. Recommend

  • Syed Zain Ali

    Its really a nice article but it really doesnt cover the whole story, well I would like to share my experience about exmaninations, well I wouldnt say that it was a worst one, coz in the end I have succeeded in what i wanted to become, first of all we all should realize that “rise and fall” is an integral part of life, if you fail in once in achieving anything it doesnt mean u wont have any chance to do it again, suicide is an act usually done by the weaker ones, i think chances are always alive if we ourselves dont stop living, Enouragment is the only healing source in this moment
    I have almost failed in my Fsc Exams and that moment was so frustrating for me, i thought that my life would end my dreams would never fulfilled bla bla………. In this moment my parents really encouraged me to try a chance to sit in an enterance Exams, so i took the chance, tried hard for it and did my best to cover up all the Deficiencies that wud create hurdles in future finally i have succeded in it, what iam now is just because of my parents always encouraged and motivated me on any failure i have ever saw in my life

    Suicide is not the final solution of your problems, this is the only way chosen by the weaker ones, and dont be one of them, no matter how many time you see a failure
    therefore there is no connection between conduction of examination with attempts of suicide
    its all about how you percieve them dont take them on your nerves do a nice smart effort to get succeeded
    and dear students “first Position” in school or college or even in University really doesnt secure your future it is good but not an issue of “death or living” i must say that try to be a good student but if u fail to achieve what u have planned, doesnt matter you have chances to improve yourself, you have chances till you’re lying on your deathbed

    Syed Zain Ali
    Mechanical Engineer Recommend

  • DER

    @Church of Euthanasia:
    Suicide is a problem responding to a problem. It is no solution. The solution is to raise the person contemplating it and improve their lives. Precious few people are willing to do that.Recommend

  • muneer jamali

    i dnt have any word to say … wish u best of luck……Recommend

  • Khalid-NJ

    @Ayseha, as mush as my heart goes out to the kids and their families on this matter, but your assessment is flawed and wrong.
    I attended NED for two years and then transferred to the US for graduate and post graduate studies fast forward 15 years my kids are in public school here. I can honestly judge that the pressure is no different between the assessment and annual system.
    If you are familiar with the US school system you might know about the Talented and gifted/Honors programs that put kids through the wringer, finally the pressure of getting into a good college are enough to put anyone on suicide watch.
    It is the lack of self esteem and hopelessness that is causing these issues and a change to assessment will not help.Recommend

  • Habiba Younis

    one of my friends attempted suicide as a 4th grader fearing her exam result. is there any end to this ‘parental madness’?Recommend

  • Rabi hussain

    Goood 1 aapiRecommend

  • Parvez

    Good subject, nicely laid out. Your suggestion makes eminent sense, hopefully private institutions may learn and adapt. Government schools are whole different ball game.Recommend

  • T

    well said.. Thumbs up.! Recommend

  • yousaf

    One fact should be made known to those having suicidal tendencies and also to their parents that most if not all great inventors and successful businessmen were average or below average students during their school life.A teacher once told his colleague that he should not be harsh to his worthy student lest he be his colleague one day,and should not be harsh to his unworthy student as may be one day he finds him to be the owner of the school where he is teaching.So one should never loose hope as only God knows what good He has in store for him Recommend

  • Awais

    Not only did I fail some of my exams in primary school and high school but also had my behind kicked almost everyday…Good times.Recommend

  • Sane

    So the behind kicks made you man. Isn’t it. Only behind kicks work.Recommend

  • Omair wani

    Agreed… But i would like to add that, those who commit suicide are not strong enough to face the truth, in fact its a cowardly thing.
    As suicide is harram, one shouldn’t even think of doing it. I believe in the end you’ll only get what is there for you, neither much nor less…
    Its true that we make many plans in our life, but remember…. There is the biggest of all planners, who’s got something else for us, definitely better than what we have planned….. :)Recommend

  • Awais

    The hell? I never wrote “behind” I wrote another word. Why did it change?Recommend

  • SImbaaa

    @Awais LOL!!!!!!!!! so which word did you actually write?Recommend

  • Sanaa

    The author addresses an important issue, one that should perhaps be highlighted more often given the growing number of student suicides in Pakistan. However, she states that events like these are uncommon in the US and Canada, because they use an assessment based approach to evaluate students’ work, and that *”In the US, there are hardly any suicides due to pressure of grades or failing, (maybe because no one really fails) but rather due to bullying or other forms of discrimination or racism.” * I feel this statement is a bit of a generalization. Perhaps at the school level students might not be driven to kill themselves because of a lack of academic success, but there are definitely students attempting and committing suicide across the board at many colleges and universities in the US and Canada. The pressure to succeed and perform well has averse affects on the psychological health of many students, especially those in uber competitive institutions. I have personally known and heard of many students who have suffered from nervous breakdowns because of falling GPAs, feeling like they will be unable to succeed and find jobs post-college in an increasingly cut-throat environment and a very uncertain economy.
    Another important issue the author fails to address is that a lot of the time domestic students in the US and Canada have a hard time coping at university because they have been mollycoddled by their schooling system (especially if they have studied in public schools, which is the majority of students since private schools are very expensive to attend) and are not prepared to face serious academic challenges. Depending on the environment of the university they are attending and their personal tendencies, they can either learn how to ease into the increased pressure, or develop severe coping problems.
    While I agree the student suicides are a serious problem in Pakistan, I do think the author should not have generalized the way she did. Our educational system is far from perfect, and I have serious issues with the way students are treated. However, to put the educational systems of other countries as the rosy polar opposite to ours is grossly unfair. Trust me, everyone faces the pressure, and not just in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Ahmad

    I disagree that US/ Canadian schools don’t have people failing.
    I know people in Canada who failed in grade 1 here and we don’t even have exams till grade 9.
    In University, courses are the same pattern where you have lectures for 4 months and then a single exam at the end which puts all stress for that 1 exam. Unfortunately, even in Canada, students commit suicide due to failure ‘what society will say…what parents will say’

    I think suicide & education is common in most countries. No matter the amount of support you give to kids, failing is harsh & not everyone can deal with it in a calm manner.

    Some courses in Canada end up with average of 40%, (passing mark here is 50%) so that means majority of the class failed. Not a nice thing & some courses don’t have marks bellcurving as well.

    Wrong to blame pakistan for everything. All these problems exist in the west as well. Recommend

  • Awais

    I think it would probably change again if I wrote it (damn Tribune comment Moderation system) Lets just say it begins with “A” and has two “S”, thats all the letters it has.Recommend

  • Femme

    (Sorry if my English is not perfect, I’m a French speaker)

    I feel as if the view of Canadian and American education systems is overly romanticized. Yes, there are very good aspects of it, including the fact that the assessment is done over the course of the semester, with tests, quizzes and projects accounting for the final grade a student gets; but there are still components of this system which are NOT the most fair. For example, if one takes a French, German or Spanish course, a large deal of the mark is given by oral assessments. A student may be PERFECT in the grammar and vocabulary, but their oral skills are not very good (eg. speech impediment, quiet by nature). Just because a student does’t speak very well, doesn’t mean that their entire grasp of the course is incorrect. Summarizing, even the Western systems have their flaws. Pakistani’s shouldn’t aspire to copy them fully, but should try to fit the good aspects with the current system. Recommend

  • Irfan

    The idea given in the blog is a good one. Govt must focus on it.Recommend

  • Sane

    Government has no time. They are busy in sorting out more ‘important’ issues.Recommend

  • Awais

    Mademoiselle your English is perfectRecommend

  • SImbaa

    @ Awais… hahahaha you thought that word would get through?! Recommend

  • AQ

    Having studied in the west all my life, I can compare the educational system here and when i come back home. To measures ones intelligence they must be tested throughout the process of their learning and not just at the end of the school year. It is a more accurate calcuation of their intellect. Also, students are encouraged to use their brains throughout the year which encourages more learning and envolvment in academics.

    When students in Pakistan are cumatively tested at the end of the year, it does not prove their intelligence, but merely tests how much they can memorize in a short period of time without actually learning anything.

    and oh, ofcourse not to forget that doing the “ratta” (memorizing content in robotic ways) is not efficient. Not even for learning your multiplication tables. Recommend