Wednesday, May 1, 2019

How I Failed at College But Aced at Learning

Titles can sometimes be deceiving: I did, in fact, successfully graduate from college and get a degree. One year earlier than I expected, but not with the academic record that I wanted.

Finals: a series of tests that collectively make up around two and a half weeks of hell on earth with a rather large portion of your final grade at stake. Screw up one of these tests, and you most likely will find yourself retaking this course during the next quarter.

Now that I am successfully applying to medical school and writing up my secondary applications, I thought I would give myself some time to reflect on why I believe that even though my GPA is abysmal compared to most other applicants to medical school, I still succeeded at learning.
I could go on and on about how science courses don't come easily to me, or if I applied myself more, I would have gotten a better grade. But I would like to tell everyone about a class that I did well in, academically at least -- an upper-level political science course. The professor was young, never assigned any homework, never took attendance, and admitted in our first day in class that reading the assigned book was pretty much useless. To this day, I couldn't honestly tell you if I loved her or hated her. But I'm getting off track here.

The responsibilities that a student had to take in order to pass the class were pretty basic: one group paper, a midterm, and a five-minute group presentation that counted as a final. I found people who I knew to be responsible, so in other words, no real room for error. For our midterm, we were not only allowed two pages worth of cheat sheets, but we were also allowed to work with a partner. It may sound too good to be true, but at the time, it felt like I had scored a gold mine.

After going through all the lecture slides, flipped through the "useless" book in the library (thus saving myself $150), I started copying down the main ideas on my cheat sheet. I didn't really understand all of the concepts that I was copying down or why some concepts were more important than others, but I knew for a fact that the question "why was this event important" would never be tested on for a grade. To be honest, I copied down the ideas and promptly forgot about them until test day.

But as I looked up my grades online, I had to take a moment to laugh to myself: even though I received an A in this course, I just failed. The only thing that made my grade was an ability to manipulate the system. I didn't know what I was doing for the majority of the course. I didn't know the importance of the various figures that were in the textbook. And I definitely would not have gotten an A without copying down the concepts.

This brings me back to the title of this post -- more often than not, the grade that we receive is not indicative of the amount of material that we learned. After I let this sink in, I realized that this is not the first time that this has happened. In fact, after talking to a few friends, I realized that this is a pretty common occurrence. We will sit in these huge lecture halls without paying attention to a word that the professor is saying until it's a week before finals. Then, we will finally crack open the assigned book and spend a few restless nights cramming the subject material as best we can.
This, of course, is not indicative of every course that I took in college. I took a second-semester organic chemistry course at my local community college where the professor was fantastic. I managed to pass the class, but it was only through daily practice and several sleepless nights that I managed to do so. There were no cheat sheets, you either knew the content or you didn't.

Sadly, for most classes, there are not many great professors -- at least not in my three-year experience. Which, then begs the question: is getting a college degree worth it? It just doesn't happen often. More often, there are professors who are tenured or land themselves as the head of their department and are then content with being a mediocre professor at best. I remember watching a Youtube video of a professor who was complaining (that's putting it in a very diplomatic way) about students in his class using the test bank provided by the college to land a good grade on his tests. He said that the students (who got these tests through a legitimate service provided by a department which was funded directly by the university) should be sent to the dean's office for academic dishonesty. I had to pause the video and take a moment to laugh at this man's ignorance. This man -- who's getting paid more than $100k a year to teach a few classes per week -- is complaining about having to work harder for his money whereas there are students who are honestly drowning in student loans.

So instead of using the sixty or so questions from the textbook (which I assume he didn't have to buy or even know how much it costs) he now has to choose between two options:
  • A) Actually coming up with a list of questions that he wrote on his own time using his "intelligence" as a professor
  • B) Continue using the test bank and be angry at students who know how to use the resources provided to them by the university
In my opinion, he can think what he wants, but the fact that these students know to use what resources are available to them shows a lot more character than his little temper tantrum.
This brings me back to this massive question that I have been asking myself for the past few years: what do grades mean anyway? This is a scary thought, especially since my parents had paid quite the pretty penny to send me through school. I keep thinking about all the money that went into renting me out a dorm room in college, and how that money essentially became wasted in the seemingly endless bureaucracy that clogs up our college experience.

I realize that my thoughts of choosing "pointless" classes that I feel will never help me in real life is a common experience amongst students across the United States. Sometimes I think (or maybe it's coming from being young and inexperienced) that I would have been better off majoring in something like Sociology or English, something that didn't require pure memorization or knowing how to work an equation. Sure, these majors are not as "competitive" in the workforce, but I know for a fact that I would have gotten a higher GPA if I had majored in a "soft" humanities subject.

Whenever I ask my mom about what the point of all these classes are, she simply tells me that loving what you do and doing what pays the bills are usually two completely separate things. Even though this is incredibly annoying, it's also an extremely accurate statement. As much as I hate to admit it, she was right. As controversial as this is, choosing a major that will get you a steady (or very good) job is typically more "useful" than studying something that you "love" but won't pay you a dime. That's not to say you shouldn't follow your passions, far from it. But the reality of graduation is this -- how will you survive in the real world when all hiring managers have to go on is a resume?

I know that this post most likely sounds like me complaining about how I should have done things differently when I was an undergrad (and a little bit of this post is). But I don't believe I am alone in the sense that I felt that the majority of the classes I took were of little consequence to me. I can't possibly be alone in thinking that just because someone has a higher GPA, it means that they are somehow better qualified for a job. I have met many people who are considered successful but don't have a fancy degree from an upscale university. Again: is having a degree worth it? Or is it just another piece of paper?

So what's the point of this rather long post? I guess my point is that my core belief of numbers (birth year, SAT scores, GPAs, etc) are not the full measure of ability, intelligence, or knowledge of subject material. Sure, they're a good measure of what you may have learned, but it's finite. I remember a class where I got low B's on all of the tests, but I went to class every day and got "extra credit" points just for being there. I ended up getting a high A based off nothing else but the "credit" in the class. So, what grade did I really deserve? I honestly couldn't tell you.

So the next time you look at a B grade (or lower), ask something of yourself: is it better to receive an A and walk out remembering next to nothing or receive that B and walk away having learned something? If you ask me, I would rather have had learned something than get a "good" grade and remember next to nothing about my class.

3 comments:

  1. A lot to think about here. I was a person who hated useless book work and pointless lectures, so I opted for tech school that didn't have those and let me get hands-on from day one. But I'm also a lucky person in that what I wanted to do (computer programming) was actually a marketable career. Then there's my best friend who majored in music composition. She's not using that degree in her career now, but it did lead her into following her passion and teaching music and English to kids in Cambodia some years back. She's doing well for herself, despite not being in the same field as her major.

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  2. Hi Gina - I'm glad you got to College and am glad you've spent time working through what's what in studying ... I only got my third level education late in life; I just applied myself ... but realised that common sense and doing my best - being there, I had to take notes - at least somethings went in. We learn don't we ... and we can come to education later in life. Good luck with your medical career - wherever it takes you ... cheers Hilary

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  3. So long as you're learning and getting value on your own, it's worth it:)

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