A whinge session about S6

If I had a penny for every time I've stayed up late at night in the middle of the school year lamenting in writing about my education, I'd have two pennies. Which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice.

Previous experiences with burnout

A few years ago, I was facing burnout and felt as if I was falling significiantly behind everyone else in my studies. I felt as if I started with a better initial understanding than my classmates in my subjects but was learning new material slower than them, so inevitably I got overtaken by them - and when confronted with that, I found that difficult to deal with. The way I saw it, I just wasn't putting in enough work.

LearningTime🔥 I experiencedburnout hereMeOthers

Did I overcome this in the end? Sort of. In part this was due to conversations with parents and teachers about what I was going through and how I felt, but largely, it was getting my test results back. The shiny 🅰️ mark on the page was an affirmation that I was along the right track, and doing the right thing - it was a benchmark of my progress which reassured me that whatever I was doing, it worked out. Was this due to hard work, pre-seeded knowledge, or just pure luck? I'm still not sure, and I do know my work ethic definitely could've been better. But regardless, the grade was there.

Yet again I'm finding myself teetering on the edge of burnout again - but I think there's more to the story this time round.

Learning by intuition

Let's start with a bit of context about the way that I learn. When presented with a new topic in a subject, there are two broad ways you can approach "learning" the material:

  1. You could learn to recognise the distinct properties and styles of the various exam questions relevant to the topic, memorise the relevant procedures and formulae, and simply recall them at the time of examination to utilise to quickly get you to the answer.
  2. Alternatively, you could learn the fundamentals behind the concepts presented in the topic - by fully understanding the theory, playing and experimenting with the relevant concepts, retracing the steps required to derive laws and formulae, and so on.

Option 1 is the most appealing to many people as it requires less actual thinking, and hence is the more consistent route to take. Simply put in enough hours into studying and revising and memorising and recalling, and you're sorted! It's a magic one-size-fits-all solution, it seems, and there's no risk of getting stuck at a dead end of not knowing where to go or what to do like with option 2.

Option 1Option 2

"So", I hear you proclaim, "what's the point in considering option 2 at all then"?

Well, in the real world, problems and challenges won't always be so kind as to format themselves in a pretty little fashion which aligns with the format and patterns that your local examinations authority uses. The tools you've been given to memorise are useless if you don't know where and how to apply them. I firmly believe that in the long run an intuitive understanding of the topic will always win out, as it allows you to adapt and mould your knowledge in the topic as you see fit. You can build on what you've learned easier, explore related cases, draw connections to other topics and subjects, and overall it makes you a better problem solver.


You're a thinker, after all, not merely a calculator.

The problem

I doubt it's news to most that the SQA is not particularly friendly to the latter form of intuitive thinking and learning. For the past few years in my Physics classes, I have had to invest considerable extra effort into learning and properly understanding the physics being taught at a fundamental and intuition-based level. I forced myself to do this by writing and publishing my class notes online at notes.thatother.dev, under the highly uncreative title of "Andrew's Class Notes". But ironically despite the name, I spent an average of 2-3 hours learning, writing and editing my notes outside of class for every 1 hour of class time. From a pure educational and developmental perspective I consider this to be worth it, but it's certainly not reflected in terms of my academic performance. Simply taking formulae from the SQA®️ Relationships Sheet™️ we blindly trust and worship is the more efficient method to crunch numbers, and my grades were... average at best.

However, this is not simply a matter of stubbornness. This approach of intuition-based thinking and learning is what I have used throughout my entire life up until this point, and it is an integral part of how I think and how my brain functions in general. It's not just a matter of me choosing not to memorise and regurgitate algorithmic procedures to check off the marks - it's more that I can't. Without grasping the fundamentals of a topic, I cannot wrap my head around it or work with it in the slightest. I'm unsure of why this is - is it because I've gotten too used to my current learning approach? Is this an inherent property of who I am, just like my personality? Does neurodivergence have a role to play here? I'm not too sure, but what I do know is that when I'm asked to "just memorise" something, it doesn't stick.

And as of lately, as I'm digging into my four Advanced Higher subjects (previously three Advanced Highers and an A-Level), the problem is worsening. Massively. Not only is the workload significantly greater than previous years, with lessons relentlessly charging onwards to cram in all the topics needed to be covered before the exams, but there's the added chore of coursework as well.

Speaking of coursework...

The "joy" of coursework

Perhaps I'd have a slightly different attitude towards coursework if I had a chance to properly trial it before, in National 5 and Higher courses. Maybe I'd struggle less if I had an actual opportunity to submit a Physics project write-up last year. However, the coursework in its entirety has been stripped away following the COVID-19 pandemic, only to make a return now in the last year of school.

What I've noticed while churning through my Computing Science and Physics projects is that I suck at it. There's no sugar-coating it: I'm abysmal at planning and completing a large-scale thesis-like document. I've always struggled with writing in general, with English essays being my weakest point throughout my school career, and I'd often spend an order of magnitude more time on a writing task than my peers. Words simply do not flow for me, and each next sentence is a constant battle - and while this has improved with practice, I still find writing very challenging. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is the case for me, but I believe the most likely reason is the lack of zoomed-in, narrow and focused targets. If someone was to ask me a specific question about the relevant topic I'm writing about then I'd often be able to answer it no problem, but being able to work that into an essay is not something which comes naturally to me.

1.2.3.This is easy.1.4.This is not.

To make matters worse, the coursework really doesn't seem to care that much about how well you actually know what you're doing. In the case of Physics, beyond the underlying physics where intuition can lend a hand, it's mundanely populating information in ways to appease the SQA. How many people actually understand the Excel LINEST function (which by the way is LinEst, not LineST), or why uncertainties are calculated in the ways that they are? I certainly don't. Why is it that somebody with a poor knowledge of physics but a strong mental map of the structure of the coursework assignment can get much further carried on the back of ChatGPT than somebody who may know the physics through and through but not lay it out in the specific way the SQA wants it? Why is it that my greatest chore is cross-referencing SQA Understanding Standards, the coursework specification, the marking scheme, and past coursework submissions to try and get a grasp of what on earth I'm even to do at each step?

What frustrates me immensely overall about the coursework is that I feel like I've learned nothing about physics at all throughout the entire project. I've picked up a little bit of knowledge about the structuring of a scientific lab report, but even then it's mostly SQA-specific formatting shenanigans if you look past the common sense aspects such as "you need to write an aim". The vast majority of the effort for me is in figuring out how to structure my work, which is difficult without access to an examplar / model assignment. Maybe I'm just salty and blaming the system as an excuse because I'm struggling; I'd love to be able to sit down with somebody and have them break down the coursework into bite-sized chunks of simple questions to answer, but I'm not sure if anybody's even allowed to do that.

Anyways, detour aside...

Am I doing the right thing?

As silly as it sounds to say out loud, we're all constantly seeking validation that we're doing the right thing (or at least I hope so, because it'd be horribly embarrassing if it's just me). Getting a good score on a test feels good because it tells you that you've done the right work, it has paid off, and you're on the right track. Usually this is pretty straightforward - the more work you put in, the better your result is - but especially as of this academic year I've been trying to push myself in ways which aren't recognised but are beneficial to my learning and development.

At least, that's what I thought.

When I made my subject choices for S6, I was debating whether I should choose Physics or Mechanics in addition to Pure Mathematics. If Physics is all about observations in the real world, and Pure Mathematics is all about working with abstract logical models, then Mechanics is right in the middle. Since it has overlap with both other subjects, if I had chosen to do Pure Mathematics and Mechanics then I would've had less work overall to do. As an added bonus, Mechanics also has no coursework assignment!

MechanicsPure MathsPhysicsLess work to do!

However, I had instead chosen Physics. But why give myself more work to do, for a likely worse exam score, when both subjects are weighted and considered equally by future universities and employers? My rationale was that I'd end up covering a more diverse range of knowledge overall, and thus I'd know and understand the parts of Mechanics which overlap with both Physics and Mathematics. However, now that I'm feeling the pressure of the workload, I'm no longer confident that this was the right decision for me to make. It may aid me slightly in the long run, but there's no direct feedback from that - I don't feel the effects of it in any noticeable way, and as such it's more difficult to find the motivation and enthusiasm in pursuing this route.

But to make matters even worse, it's not just a matter of not knowing if I make the right judgement call - sometimes I make choices which I know are beneficial to my education, but I feel almost as if I'm being punished for it.

Prizegiving frustrations

When I initially started S6, I had a dream of achieving the Dux award at the end of the year during the Prizegiving ceremony, and set it as a long-term goal and a source of motivation for pushing myself to do the best that I can in all areas of my learning and development. There no longer remains even a sliver of a hope of achieving that goal - and I don't feel as if it's particularly fair why.

After asking around with a few teachers, I've learned that subject prizes are awarded based off prelim exam results as a primary basis of evidence. This feels problematic to me for a number of reasons:

These issues seem compounded by the Dux award which accounts for academic performance across all subjects, and introduces a new emergent problem as well - it appears to value exceptional performance in a narrow area over strong performance in a very broad area. Since primarily the consideration factor is prelim exam results for all subjects that a pupil takes, it again seems unfair to me:

Subject 1Subject 2Subject 3Subject 4Other subjectsSelf-studyOlympiadsProjectsPerformancesSubject 1Subject 2Subject 3Subject 4Other subjectsSelf-studyOlympiadsProjectsPerformancesThis person gets the Dux...Instead of this person.

Now, I'm not trying to argue that I'm deserving of the Dux award - because I'm not, and I could've done better this year. I've made my bed and now I have to lay in it. However, this is still something that has been bothering me which I wanted to get out.

And then there's the matter of extracurricular activities. I perform in the school's string orchestra, concert band, big band, jazz/swing band, upper school choir, chamber concerts, senior musicals, Christmas concerts, and while I would participate in them all the same regardless of whether prizes existed or not, no award seems to acknowledge any of these ensembles or concerts. Some things are instantly gratifying in of themselves, for instance hearing your composition being performed by the RSNO, but if you're stepping in last-minute for a musician on the day of a concert because they're unable to perform, there's just the stress of learning a part at short notice and making mistakes in a concert. (There's a whole can of worms there about saying "Yes" to everything, but I am not ready to delve into that here and now.) Is it hugely beneficial for my learning and development as a musician? Most definitely so. But someone who refuses will be at an advantageous position with the rest of their music, curricular exams, and so on.

There's also other miscellaneous awards, which are a whole mess of their own. For instance, before learning about the existence of the Community Service badge, I was volunteering and attending every single school music event for helping with prefecting (assuming I wasn't performing). I also taught an S3 Computing Science class at the start of the year, until a new teacher joined in mid-October. And yet, I've heard tales of others get nominated for the badges simply by asking a School Officer they're on good terms with, or people doing the bare minimum of a single small "service" act then getting their friends to nominate each other. Doesn't that defeat the entire purpose and spirit of the badge?

It feels ridiculous and whiny to put this all out into words of course, but it's coming from an honest place. I'd absolutely be making the same decisions if there were no prizes or awards at all in the first place, but there's a part of me which gets frustrated when the awards which do exist get handed out in a seemingly unjust manner.

University uncertainty

Okay okay, I've got my gripes with the SQA education system, but surely it doesn't matter any more? It's just a couple more months and then I'll never have to put up with anything of the sort ever again, right?


In these ramblings of mine, there's a good mix of SQA-specific problems, general education system problems, all-encompassing societal problems and also just whining and whinging on my part about things which may not be problems at all. Going off to university and starting this new chapter of my life is exciting, but also mildly intimidating - as with all major changes. How many of these issues I'm having will be solved just like that as soon as I step into this new realm of education, how many will sort themselves out gradually over time as I work my way through my degree, and how much will simply not change and how should I change instead to adapt for that?

I have a deep-rooted fear that I'm working myself into a dead end. Is my approach towards education and learning really the right way? What have I gotten right and what have I gotten wrong? Change is difficult - what if I develop bad habits or let myself slip and end up trapped in a depressive loop of degrading away? What if I overcommit again, as I have a tendency to, and simply burn out and fizzle away? Is there anything I can do in advance to prepare?

Thinking about my future at such a timescale is terrifying, as it invokes a unique sense of directionlessness and being lost which no other overthinking seems to do.

So, what now?

There's no good in sitting on the fence any more - I either do what the system wants me to, and fully invest my efforts in and commit to playing the SQA Game, or refocus on what I myself consider to be more beneficial and educational to myself in the long run. I've got my unconditional university offer, and I'm sure I'd be able to achieve mediocre grades at the very least. But I feel that attempting to go down both routes would simply be too much for me, both in terms of time and mental wellbeing - I wouldn't be able to relax and enjoy myself because of the continued pressure of a looming workload, and I would trail off in my subjects too as I won't be as productive. And yet, my situation is entirely of my own doing - the only reason I'm writing a coursework essay during the tacet bars of concert band rehearsal is because I've said yes to too much.

So the question remains - what do I do now? For the first time ever in my life, I'm at an educational crossroads where one of the options is for me to carve my own path forwards, and I don't know if I can trust myself to do that. Especially when everyone and everything around me seems discouraging of such an approach. Initially my past naive self thought this was a good idea, but now it almost seems to imply an attitude of "everyone is wrong except me", which isn't a good sign.

The words on this document cannot do justice to my inner feelings and conflicting emotions regarding my dilemma, and instead just comes across as a couple of pages of whiny beaching (sic), but hopefully they can provide a slight window of insight into what's going on in the hot soupy mess that is my brain. I've got a long journey still ahead of me, and I hope to get it right - after all, if I get it wrong, there's no going back and reclaiming the lost time.

Anyways, that's me out for now. I've got a Physics coursework deadline to meet.