Don’t Worry About It
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain
Disclaimer: I write this as a university student. Some of my points may or may not be applicable in a high school environment.
The grading system in schools and universities has a long history of opponents and criticism. I won’t go into the arguments here because, quite frankly, I don’t have anything new to say about it. In short: the system sucks. It encourages memorization and frenzied, last-minute studying, can be played in a variety of ways, etc. Educators can debate the alternatives and run pilot projects, and that’s all well and good. But what can we – the students – do about it?
My answer: Don’t Worry About It.
Of course, this could easily be interpreted as a call to rebel against the system, forget grades entirely, and party night and day. So let me expand on that:
Pick courses that interest you, and focus on learning. And don’t worry about the grades – they will come with the territory.
John and Joe
John and Joe are classmates in the second year of a Computer Science program. They’re not friends, but since they have all five courses in common they know each other and talk occasionally. It’s Monday, and they’ve got three tests and an assignment due this week. John mentally resigns himself to a 2-hour-per-day sleeping schedule and dives into the work. He mentions the tough week to Joe, and Joe sympathizes. Inside, however, Joe is snickering. You see, he’s been studying AHEAD of time – he spent the weekend preparing for the tests and is well on his way to finishing his assignment. Joe Gets Things Done, employs all the right strategies, and studies hard. He’s got a plan and sticks to it, studying in bursts for one subject, then another, and even squeezing in some time for things due… *gasp* two weeks later! Meanwhile, John, fuelled by Red Bull, coffee, and a strong ego, spends hours upon hours flipping through textbooks and notebooks, trying to cram as much knowledge into his head as he possibly can.
John and Joe show up to the test rooms. John is sore-eyed from his sleepless nights, clutching a can of Rockstar like a saber-toothed squirrel. Joe is flipping through his notes, doing some last-minute review before each test. And at the end of the week John retreats to his lair to lick his wounds and catch up on his sleep, while Joe goes back to his methodical grind. Both of them are smart, and both do well, and the next week the cycle starts over again.
These are the two main camps when it comes to studying. And despite the differences, they have one thing in common: they’re focused on the result – on getting a grade. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not compatible with the “Don’t Worry About It” philosophy, so let’s consider another case.
Because it is convenient, let’s assume Jane is in the same classes as both John and Joe. It’s Monday, and she’s got three tests and an assignment due this week. Unlike John, she hasn’t been slacking off during the weekend. But unlike Joe, she wasn’t studying for the tests either. She had finished the assignment – she enjoyed programming – and spent the rest of her time trying to build Linux from scratch on a spare laptop. Throughout the week she took time to work on another side-project – a small Android game – and got some work in for a couple of future assignments. Instead of reading her course notes on the bus to/from school she read a book about Charlemagne. And she took a couple of hours before each test to go through the course notes and refresh the key concepts in her memory. She finished the week looking forward to another fun weekend.
Did Jane get a better grade than Joe and/or John? Maybe, and maybe not. She knows her stuff, but she doesn’t tailor her efforts to the demands of her classes, opting instead to learn what excites her. Sometimes the class material coincides with her interests. Other times it ignites her interests. And other times she doesn’t care for it. Regardless, she is always doing what she’s interested in, always developing her skills, and always preventing her schooling from interfering with her education.
“But wait,” you say. “I understand that John may not learn as much as Jane, but what about Joe? He’ll learn AND get good grades!”
Yes, that’s true. It’s a false dichotomy to separate grades from learning. That may be why most university-oriented books are focused on turning Johns into Joes. And there is nothing wrong with being like Joe. But by restricting the flow of his mental energy to the channels set out for him by the curriculum, Joe is missing something – that spark of initiative and drive that comes from working on something that’s completely your own. Joe is studying to get grades, and learning the material as a by-product. Jane, on the other hand, is the opposite. She studies to learn – studies for its own sake – and doesn’t worry about the grades. Is it better? Who’s to say? But it is a good way to go through school enjoying the process, and let grades work as they are supposed to – a measuring stick of your progress, not the carrot that drives you forward.