Why some Straight A students score Cs during PSLE

Having taught more than a thousand students, we’ve seen our fair share of upsets. More than 95% of students that score a convincing A for their prelims get similar grades for the national exams (PSLE and ‘O’ level respectively). However, we’ve seen cases at many top schools and tuition centres where the star pupil vastly underperforms by 1 or even two grades.


This is caused by the ‘fight or flight’ response.


Some lucky individuals are adrenalized by stress to perform better than usual in exams. These students enjoy sharpened memory, effortlessly penning down key information for essay writing.


Then, there are those who just go blank in the exam hall under the stress of high stakes. All the consistent As for CA1, CA2, SA1 and prelims count for nothing.


Preventing Exam Stress From Affecting Your Child

Can it happen to your child? It might. There are a few warning signs to look out for based on our years of experience. Our students tend to confide in us way more than to their parents. The following signs are what we have observed in underperformers over the years.


Within a month or weeks before the national paper, the student starts to:

  • experience an outbreak of pimples
  • suffer from sore throat
  • exhibit irritability
  • have difficulty sleeping/ sleep long hours but still wakes up tired
  • show a disinclination to talk (especially if he/she is usually chatty)


These are all warning signs that your child has the possibility of going blank in the final exam hall. When we see that in our students, we know it is time to stop assigning homework. It is time to call their parents and get them to do the same.


It would be much more productive to just skim through the notes and just go to bed early every night. Daily exercises and long walks are highly recommended till the day of the paper.


Avoid Overdrilling Students On Top School Papers

There is a misconception when it comes to drilling practice papers. Parents tend to believe that more is better. There is substantial truth to that. The savvy parents buy stacks of top school papers and make their students complete 2 sets a week on top of school work and tuition.


However, top school papers and tuition centres tend to set practices that are harder than the national exams. The truth is, the national papers are set at a reasonable standard for both PSLE and ‘O’ level English. PSLE paper 2 synthesis and transformation questions never ever test anything out of the ordinary. Most ‘O’ level paper 2 questions can be lifted from the text. 


Excessive drilling of top school papers could lead to overthinking simple questions. Students begin to doubt their answers as it seems too easy compared to what they’re used to and end up giving WRONG ANSWERS.


For the sake of illustration, I will use the editing passage in the ‘O’ level 2016 paper 1.


My ex-colleague’s son was a student from Victoria school who could consistently ace every subject except English. By secondary 4, his average English grades had already climbed from C6 to a high B3 (67-69). He usually missed A2 by only 1 or two marks. Over his entire secondary 4 year, he finished two thick books of editing practices (a 10 mark section in paper 1) along with countless other school practices. On average, he would score 6/10 for those practices.


Then on the fateful Tuesday afternoon of 24 October 2016, he came face to face with the following.


Carefully read the text below, consisting of 12 lines, on Singapore’s Changi Airport. The first and last lines are correct. For eight of the lines, there is one grammatical error in each line. There are two more lines with no errors. If there is no error in a line, put a tick (✓) in the space provided. The correct word you provide must not change the original meaning of the sentence.



Eample of an English practise question

The majority of people who travel to Singapore do so by aeroplane.
From the minute they arrive at Changi Airport, many visitors are amazed at their size 1.  its
and impressed facilities. The airport is 12 miles from the city centre, but onward 2. impressive
travel is easily by taxi, bus or MRT. There are three terminals, and passengers can 3. easy
use the skytrain to move between them. This allow those waiting for a flight to visit 4.  allows
many beautiful places such like the rooftop Cactus Garden and the large Koi pond. 5. as
The Enchanted Garden is interactive and magically come to life as people walk 6. comes
through it. Children have many playgrounds where they can have fun before flying. 7. 
Travellers with time to relax can enjoy the massage or even use the swimming pool. 8. a
In the evenings, a pianist playing soothing music. There are many shops with souvenirs 9. plays
and lots of places to eat and drink. The whole atmosphere is peaceful yet efficient. 10.
No wonder Changi has won awards for being the best airport in the world.

The above is the solution worked out by us.


Most of our students screamed in delight when they matched their answers to ours. After looking at my answers, this Victoria boy called me on my handphone and spoke to me with abject self-loathing.


His initial attempt was exactly the above and he would have scored 10/10. However, his past experiences with all the difficult practices kicked in. He overestimated its difficulty. He had never come across a practice where they test three same types of subject-verb agreement mistakes (look at line 4, 6, and 9). Since he was so used to scoring 6/10, he became paranoid of his answers, thinking he must have answered two or three lines wrong. In his paranoia, he changed line number 6 and 9 to ticks and lines 7 and 10 to some other answer. In the end, he scored 6/10.


The 4 marks he threw away in this editing section accounted for 2% of his final grade. His ‘O’ level score for English was A2 when it could possibly have been A1.


Giving Students An Exam Advantage 

Consecutive Distinctions for 'O' and 'A' Levels

Exam skills aside, we are able to predict (within reasonable range) what would be tested for the year’s oral, situational writing and essay topics. After all, we sit for the exam regularly so we observe a certain pattern which we would use to the advantage of our students.


Many times, we would be right in our predictions. To the benefit of our future students, all our oral and essay content have been digitised on google docs for easy revision. Do also take a look at our learning resources and other articles to get a better idea of how to prepare your child for major exams.

Recommended Reading

20 Years of Experience

We nurture creative learners

Phi Learning believes in nurturing more holistic students. That's why we integrate documentaries, global cultural trivia and general knowledge into our English lessons. We believe that an interesting lesson begets interested students.

Our Teachers