Performing and learning are not synonymous Long-term retention should be a priority over the fear of failing

By: Owen Angus-Yamada

Exams are one of the most stressful times for students because so much of a class rides on the result of one test. Students are constantly told that performances on these tests are crucial to getting accepted to graduate school or getting hired at a prestigious, high paying workplace. While good grades often lead to success, high marks shouldn’t necessarily be the highest priority for students. When did we start going to school to perform well instead of to learn?

Now, before you say, “Performing well on a test reflects your knowledge of a subject, idiot,” ask yourself how much you remember from last semester’s classes. For the majority of people, I can almost guarantee that all those carefully crafted notes and hours of practice problems have lead to little or no long term retention. We can’t remember because we were too focused on our grade outcomes. We study for what’s going to be tested, not to develop our understanding of the subject.

Some of us even go out of our way to take “bird courses” that will result in an easy A to add to our transcript. We forget that we’re here to learn about what we want to spend our lives doing.

Much of McMaster’s priority, unfortunately, seems to be on this short-term performance rather than on ways to encourage long-term retention. While extending the library hours during exam periods is nice and the fall reading week helps to break the material up a bit, these don’t add enough to remembering the course material once you’re done.

When it comes to aiding students with depression, anxiety and stress brought on by exams and marks, McMaster offers support in the forms of counselling and even visits from friendly therapy dogs, but these are short-term solutions that mask the larger issue.

They do not deal with the issue that these negative emotions are brought on university’s heavy emphasis on performance culture rather than being a learning environment.

When stress and anxiety kick in this exam season, you should take a look in the mirror and ask how important performing well on these exams actually is. Not everything rides on a single outcome.

There also seems to be hesitancy to use the beneficial parts of some classes in more traditional courses. Solutions like placing less emphasis on exams and shifting the weight to more constant assessments, exploring blended learning a bit more and reducing lectures in favour of different types of learning are all possible in most courses.

I am also a believer in the effectiveness of pass or fail classes. It takes the ideas of marks completely out of the picture to redirect students’ focus on content understanding and retention. These might be difficult and require more effort from professors, but should be better for students’ learning, development and long-term performance.

With these suggestions and how your courses may currently be, the end-goal of learning should always be the primary objective with your grades being secondary. However, this involves not only increasing long-term retention, but not worrying too much about short-term results.

Learning and development happens only after countless failed attempts so we shouldn’t be afraid to fail. Failure should be the goal in every classroom. Instead of bell curving tests and handing out bonus marks, professors should push every student outside their intellectual comfort zone in the hopes they fail.

If you truly enjoy doing something, it doesn’t matter if you fail as long as you improve. If you’re not passionate about what you’re studying, your goal should still be constant improvement.

When stress and anxiety kick in this exam season, you should take a look in the mirror and ask how important performing well on these exams actually is. Not everything rides on a single outcome.

Try your best, but don’t be afraid to fail as long as you continue to learn from the experience. Marks do not define you.


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