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“Maybe actively planning relaxation sessions is just the thing to keep us all going”

29 July 2018, at 3:48pm

Last month we dealt with those annoying exams that spoil the start of summer for so many. But talking to undergraduates, there seems to be quite a variation between students. Many are stressed with the prospect of the upcoming tests and frustrated by revision. Going back over the work from the previous months, they bemoan, shows them more what they have forgotten or never understood than what they have fully grasped and subsequently remembered. 

But there is a minority of students who have a very different outlook. They say that this is the term they really enjoy. One where they can pull together the information from the months of lectures, where it all eventually makes sense, where they can work to amalgamate apparently disparate strands of learning and join them into a coherent whole. Did exam term ever turn out like that for you? I’m not sure it did for me! Perhaps it’s all a question of attitude.

I interact with vet students all the time of course, but only get a proper chance to talk to others from different disciplines over breakfast after our chapel’s Sunday communion service. This chapel crew includes several who have quite a different attitude to work. 

The college library is full throughout every day (and much of every night) during exam term, but many of the breakfast bunch consciously take Sunday off. Their Sabbath break calms them down, they say, and helps them work harder during the rest of the week. They can rest without feeling guilty for not working while everyone else is manically cramming.

I tell all our students that whether they have a faith or not, it is worth taking an hour off every so often and coming to evensong in chapel where our world-class choir take you away from your workload and just about to heaven and back for 30 minutes or so. 

Sam, my eldest son, had rather an epiphany in his first term doing environmental geoscience at the University of Bristol. He came home strangely relieved having realised that there was no way he could remember everything he was being told in lectures or read every volume on the recommended books list. 

For GSCE and A level it was possible to know everything that might come up in the exams if you set your mind to it. But university was a totally different world. And understanding that was the most important thing to learn in that first year. It lifted a weight from his shoulders that continually weighed down other students. 

Sam had a great way of revising, too. He took a novel with him wherever he was working and gave himself a prize of reading a chapter in-between every block of revision. That way, he had something concrete to do in-between learning and relearning the geology, maths or physics for his exams and a good reason for powering through those revision sessions with an end in sight. 

You might ask why I am telling you all this. Well, I wonder if we have something to learn from Sam in how we structure our days. Do you ever feel that you struggle through a morning’s consults just to collapse in a chair and crumple before your afternoon’s surgery list? 

Maybe actively planning relaxation sessions is just the thing to keep us all going. You may already do just that, but I know for myself that after 30 years of vetting, my life is still a chaotic leap from one work deadline to another. Perhaps I need to practise what I preach!

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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