Is not learning.
Here’s a question. What’s the best outcome that can happen when you take a course?
The most common answer (and one I would give myself) is to get 100%. To do everything perfectly, never making a mistake. Most students agree that this would be the ultimate goal. How could anything be better than getting a perfect grade?
When you look back on a course, what do you think about? Chances are, the final grade you got is a good indicator of how you thought about the course. It’s the only tangible metric left, so we base our reflections on that one number. The number is supposed to encapsulate our knowledge anyway, so where’s the harm in using the grade as a proxy for how we felt about the course?
The problem is that you never even mentioned that you took a course in order to learn.
It’s worth thinking about this, because we go through tons and tons of classes in school worrying only about our grades. At the end of the day, who cares if you think you learned a lot in a course? If your final grade doesn’t reflect this, no one else will try and dig deeper to say, “Yes, you might not have finished with a good grade, but you’ve learned so much and grown throughout the course.” As such, the incentive is to turn away from learning, and focus on getting good grades.
Good grades unlock new opportunities. Saying you learned a lot in a course but only getting an average grade doesn’t convince anyone. Therefore, it’s natural that we learn to focus on getting good grades instead of learning in general. If learning happens during a course, that’s great, but it isn’t something to focus on.
Think about how you feel once you’ve written the final exam for your course. Do you think, “How can I fit these new concepts and principles into the way I think?” I’d predict your thoughts go along the lines of, “I’m finally done with this course! I just hope I did enough to get a good grade.” These two attitudes illustrate the difference between going to school to learn and going to school to get good grades.
It may be surprising, but you can get good grades in school without learning. It’s possible. You don’t even have to turn into a memorization machine. You just have to know what to focus on at the right time, and be a good performer on tests.
In a sense, we do learn something in school. We learn that society rewards those with good grades, which means we have a choice. We can either focus only on getting good grades to impress others, or we can dig deeper to do the difficult work of learning. That means being able to explain topics to others. It means being able to think through a problem without just wondering what special fact or result is needed to resolve it. Learning is a different kind of skill, and it’s one that is too often in short supply at school.
I’m not sitting on my high-horse here. I feel the pressure to get good grades just as much as you, the reader. When I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done, I retreat to my defaults: get good grades, don’t worry about learning itself. I know this is the wrong mentality, but I also know that a lot of my academic future relies on getting good grades.
My advice is simply this. As much as we spend time focusing on getting good grades, you need to take time to think about if you’re also learning. This is more difficult than it seems when you’re getting good grades. That’s because you will be able to answer many different problems that involve the concepts you looked at in class. However, like I wrote above, a key indicator of learning material is being able to explain it on your own. If you don’t have your notes, can you give an impromptu explanation to a friend? How about someone who knows nothing about the subject? If you can create an explanation to that sort of person, then you’re doing alright in terms of learning.
I think many people will be surprised to find that they can’t do this. If that’s you, don’t worry! It’s an indication that you have more to learn. Take it as an opportunity to go back and try to soak in the information from your class, but also remember to explain it to others.
The priority of our education system isn’t aligned with learning. It’s aligned with getting good grades so that you can stand out. Therefore, if you want to be more than just the student who can get 100% in your class, then it’s up to you to focus on the more intangible aspects of learning. No one will look out for you, or care that you’re doing “more” work. However, the difference will show up in the long run, because you will understand the topics deeply versus those who only prepared enough to ace the final exam.