Not Just For The Test


I have a bad habit when receiving an exam that is graded: instead of looking at my errors and trying to figure out what I could have done better, I simply try to put the whole exam out of mind.

This happens whether I have a good or bad exam. Basically, I want to see my grade and that’s it. I think the underlying reason is that I won’t need that information for a long time (until the end of semester). Therefore, I can afford to push it out of my mind once I receive my exam back.

Obviously, this points to a problem with the way we structure our learning. At the moment, I’m encouraged to become proficient with certain content, and then I’m free to forget it until the final exam. What this means is that I’m familiar with the content for only a small sliver of time before forgetting it once again.

If I asked you if you were good at foul shots in basketball and you proved to me you were by draining ten shots in a row, I’d probably think of you from then on as a great foul shot shooter. However, what I don’t know is that you practiced this shot for the past two weeks and you never plan to do it again after showing me.

Would this be considered as being great at foul shots?

I’d venture to say “no”, but this is exactly what happens for a lot of classes in school. I’m familiar with mathematics and science, but I’m sure this is applicable to other classes (particularly where memorization is important). Spend a few weeks remembering important content, take the test, and then forget. Rinse and repeat.

The consequence of this is that we don’t learn concepts as fully as we could. Sure, it’s an efficient way to get good grades (and nobody knows that more than I), but it isn’t as useful in the long term. Years later, I wish I took the time to understand more material.

Of course, it’s difficult to take this long term approach in the moment. Not only because one does not think of the consequences, but simply because taking this approach with a heavy course load is inconceivable if one wants to get good grades. Therefore, the shortcuts ensue.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the solution to this. I know that taking a long look at the mistakes made on a test and making an effort to understand those mistakes is a good step towards long term learning, which is why I’m trying to do that now. Additionally, I think returning to old content every once in a while as a refresher can be very valuable.

If you want to learn (and remember what you’ve learned!), take the time to internalize content even after the test is done.

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