For an open book exam, is there still a need to make notes? Or is it enough to simply read the textbook/readings?

A student asked:

For an open book exam, is there still a need to make notes? Or is it enough to simply read the textbook/readings?

Usually, people associate the term, “open book exam,” to mean that the exam is going to be very difficult.

Properly speaking, an open book exam has a different set of objectives compared to a closed book exam.

Closed book exams usually test your ability to recall information, and/or your ability to comprehend what you have learnt. Open book exams, on the other hand, usually test the higher-level thinking abilities like evaluation, analysis, application, and even creation.

These are things which books, lecture notes, and other resources don’t often contain since you are required to think about the information presented to you in order to generate your own views on the matter.

Making notes will be useful. But not so much for you to refer to during the exam (I mean, you could still refer to it if you needed it). But the process of note-making helps you to better internalise what you’ve been learning. Because, you see, higher-level thinking abilities are only possible AFTER you have internalised your learning of the concepts and ideas.

Most students only copy the form of things, where they will use something in class as a template for answering. But they don’t understand why they are doing that. Internalising means really understanding why the template was made that way, and recognising the shortcomings of that template in other situations AND THEN being able to freely adopt new forms to better answer those situations.

The best way to internalise your learning is to actively engage with what you’ve learnt. Talk and debate with your friends. That’s when your learning comes alive.

This also is my teaching strategy. Which is why students have to struggle in order to learn. Because through that struggle, you are not a passive learner, but instead you become actively engaged in the learning process, thereby helping you to internalise what you’re taught. In education, this is known as “productive struggle.”

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

A student asked me:

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

Yes, that happens from time to time. It’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of things that we have no control over. What we have is control over ourselves, in how we respond to these things, and that we can be better people in response to such situations.

I normally take a break and do things I enjoy doing like music, watching shows on Netflix, or go out for a walk (walks are the best!). Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a good meal. These things will help a lot.

Sometimes the annoyance is greater because all my plans and effort have come to nothing, or I totally cannot get something I really really wanted. In which case, I’ll give myself a longer time to get my mind off the matter. So I’ll go do other things in the meantime, like indulge in a hobby or work on another project. No point dwelling on the matter when you’re upset. It only makes you more upset. Better to come back when your mind is fresh and you’re calmer about the situation.

When I’m calm about the matter, I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t control that situation. I’ll assess what I have no control, and what I have control over. And then I’ll ask myself whether I can still find an alternative way to get what I want. And if I can’t achieve what I want, I’ll plan out how to make the best of the new situation. Sometimes, it takes courage to say, “I shall not pursue this anymore.” This is also a fine and legitimate option. And then I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do with my time.

This advice was very abstract, but I hope it helps.

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

A very worried student wrote to me, asking:

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

The first step is: Don’t panic!

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do an internship. Internships are very over-rated. Sure, internships may give you work experience but what matters more are your people skills. I’ll take someone without an internship but with better people skills and a good attitude any time over a person with poor people skills but an impressive CV full of internships. Why? Because the one with better people skills will give me far less of a headache as my subordinate compared to the one with poor people skills. Many bosses, supervisors and HR people will tell you they’ll choose the same too.

Now, let me systematically diagnose possible problems as to why you didn’t get an internship. If you have not been called up for an interview, it means there is something wrong with your CV. CV is Latin for Curriculum Vitae, or the course of (your) life. It’s supposed to document all the awesome things you’ve accomplished in your life, as a testament of your development through the years.

I’ve seen many CVs and one typical mistake is that people – including very awesome and capable people – merely list out super short summaries of the things they did. The problem with this strategy is that it reduces your greatness into mediocrity. Imagine if you are the hiring manager and you have to go through 1000 CVs in order to identify 3 people for an interview: who would you pick? The ones whose CVs stand out from the rest, of course.

If you merely list the tasks you did, you’re not going to stand out as impressive. It helps to add a short sentence of the outcome: how your work made an impact on someone or some group. Better if you have solid numbers to include (they must be true: don’t lie in your CV). It also helps to add an adverb to paint a richer image of what you’ve done. Here’s a comparison:

Typical Way of Writing CV (not impressive): Organised an outreach programme

Better Way of Writing CV (based on the advice I gave): Competently organised an outreach programme for the organisation. Under my supervision, the event was a success with logistics and programmes running on time. 90% of attendees gave feedback that they benefitted greatly from the careful planning and execution.

Read the two samples above. Which one inspires greater confidence in you that s/he is a very competent hire? The latter, because of the concrete evidence of the results. So do that and it will increase the appeal of your CV.

Now, if you’ve been going for interviews but haven’t been getting any offers, it means that you lack the people skills to make a strong positive impression. Usually, one of the interviewers is someone whom you’ll work under. The aim is to show that you are someone that they want to work with, and someone they can trust to do the work competently well. Ideally, you should show that you are an independent and fast learner. But if that’s not what you are, at least show that you are someone who’s lovely to work with.

You can also make a strong positive impression in other ways. You should do a lot of homework to find out more about the company and especially your interviewers. It shows in the conversation that you’re hardworking enough to have done background research. The fact that you can find common topics of interest to talk about also shows that you will be a great person to work with.

I’ve heard that some students think the interview question, “Tell me more about yourself,” is an invitation to bitch about life and bitch about one’s past work experiences. Please don’t do that. To the hiring manager, that’s a red flag. The question is an invitation to impress the interviewers, to make a case for why they should hire you.

The best way to get an internship or job is through personal connections. For example, a number of former students have since gotten internships because I put in a good word for them (I only do that for good students when the hiring manager knows me – people know that I teach a compulsory FASS module, SG is small). The testimony of a friend’s recommendation to a hiring manager makes a world of a difference, and it can even convince hiring managers to favour you even before they’ve seen your CV or hear you in an interview. So they’ll be more forgiving to mistakes and all that.

Another student asked a follow-up question:

But what if the student has no work experience and or any achievement to show off from one’s CCA? Does this mean that no one will give the student a chance at an internship at all?

I want to re-emphasise that internships are way too over-rated. You won’t lose out if you don’t do an internship. Not all internships are equal, and not all give a rich work experience. Some internships are saikang (shit job) internships that just waste your time and energy. The experience you gain doesn’t really help you at all in making an impressive case on our CV.

If you realise that as of now, you don’t have an impressive CV, as a student, you still have time to change that. Use your time in University to develop an impressive CV. Perhaps take on leadership roles or projects in your CCAs, or find some way to get involved in something. Even volunteer/charitable projects will be helpful. Anything that involves people: managing people, leading people, teaching people, guiding people, etc., will be useful. At least that will give you experience in one way or another.

If that’s not possible, use the time to upskill yourself with online courses like Coursera or EdX, or learn to develop good people skills. And learn to reach out to people in industries. It doesn’t hurt to say hello to people. Some may turn you down, but so what? They won’t remember you (unless you wrote something really nasty). In most cases, if people remember you, it’s for good things. And it can open doors of opportunities for you, whether in the form of internships or work after graduation. Learn to use this to develop good relations with others. It’s a good investment that will come in very handy for you in the future.

As a real example: Some former students got jobs/internships after staying in touch with me and building good friendships with me. Not only do I know them well, but I trust them not to let me down if I were to recommend them to other people. So I have fought hard to recommend them for positions that internship/job positions that open up.

I was very fortunate, when I was a student/fresh graduate, to have good JC teachers and profs who opened up many opportunities for me by tapping on their own networks. This is just my way of paying it forward to help other students the way my teachers helped me.

I struggle in my studies. Does it mean that I’m not good enough?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I read that you were originally from the science stream but later chose to major in Philosophy. I share a very similar experience and I feel like I relate to you a lot! Are there times where you feel like you cannot match up to your peers in FASS who had taking humanities even before University? Do you feel that if you had pursued the arts stream, you wouldn’t have to struggle as much, maybe write essays easier?

Because that’s how I feel when I entered FASS. I always feel like I’m not good enough compared to other people in my major who seem to have more knowledge and background as compared to me. I find that I’m struggling and I sometimes question if I chose the right course.

Have you had such thoughts back as an undergraduate student? How did you overcome these kinds of thoughts?

I have had many moments where I feel I’m not artsy enough (and it still happens today). Sometimes I’ll be talking to friends, and they will get really excited and go deep into certain discussions that just fly past my face. These are on topics that I know absolutely nothing about! Or, as a student, I used to have peers and even juniors who always did better than me no matter how hard I worked.

So I want you to know that I totally understand how that feels.

I want to address the issue that underlies your question: if I struggle, does it mean that I’m bad at it?

This is a matter close to my heart because I really wished someone had told me about this when I was an undergraduate. It would have changed my perspective on so many things, and I wouldn’t have had to go through four years feeling that I’m not good enough.

We are our worst critics. And especially in FASS where there is no one right answer, there is plenty of room for self-doubt.

Struggling is part of the process of growth. You will struggle to make sense of the things you read, struggle to gain clarity about concepts, struggle to articulate your thoughts into an essay.

When I was an undergrad, I struggled for my four years, and I kept thinking that I was not good enough precisely because I struggled with writing essays. I felt quite miserable about myself. In fact, I felt so burnt out trying so hard that after I graduated, I told myself I didn’t want to go back to academia ever again because I was not cut out for it.

It was only years later when I got to talk to top academics (in the course of my work) that I learnt and understood that how much you struggle is NOT an accurate indicator of how bad you are. Struggling doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough. Everyone who’s good struggles!!!

Struggling is just the process by which we give birth to new ideas or insights. Struggle is the process by which we constantly challenge ourselves to grow. So I want you to know that struggling is a normal process. It means that you are on the right track, and that you are growing. Struggling means that you are on your way to becoming better. (And I really wished someone told me this when I was an undergrad, so that’s why I’m telling you this now)

You’ll struggle more in university than anywhere else because university is the probably the only time where your mind, your system of thinking, your values are constantly being challenged almost non-stop. The demands on your brain is like nothing you’ve ever experienced (or will have to experience after graduation). So of course you will struggle every step of the way (I’d be worried for you if you didn’t struggle at all).

I’ve since come to terms that struggling is normal, and I’m a lot more patient and kind to myself. I’ve come to learn that struggle makes me produce things that are awesome. Two days ago, I spent 4 hours struggling to write one paragraph of text describing my new course. I don’t like that it took 4 hours, but with that newfound insight I have, I don’t see it as a bad thing. And after 4 hours, I produced a paragraph I’m very proud of. And in fact, that short piece of writing opened up new doors of opportunities for me.

Every good piece of work is produced from struggle. I can name you all kinds of things that were produced because of struggles and the good that came out of it: my Masters dissertation, the two books I published, my lecture videos, etc. They were all the fruits of struggle, but look how far I’ve come with them.

I still struggle with these tasks, and even today, I continue to have moments in my struggle where I feel like I’m not good enough. So I do have to remind myself that it’s normal and that even the brightest academics go through it, and so it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. It’s just the process. And in the end, the work comes out great and people recognise me for that.

The point I want to make is this: struggle brings out the best in us. It doesn’t feel good, and you will always feel you’re not good enough.

So it’s very important to remind yourself that it’s normal, and as long as you endure and be kind and patient with yourself, you will rise victorious. Every work born out of struggle will be the best that you’ve created thus far. You may feel that you’re not good enough. But once you’re done struggling with your work, you have attained a new level of perfection in yourself. :)