The tick, tick, ticking of your watch drums an insistent, almost violent tattoo against your wrist. T minus nine, eight, seven hours to go. Your eyes glaze over as they slide across page after page of your chemistry textbook, which lies sodden with ink from your scribbled annotations. Your fingers shudder as they clamp around your umpteenth cup of coffee.
Dazed, you blink. The movement momentarily alleviates the pulsing, searing sensation behind your eyes. You fantasize about what it would be like to leave them shut…just for one minute…
But you can’t. You want that A. You need that A.
Cramming for exams is no foreign concept to most Lehigh students or, indeed, most college students overall. Pulling all-nighters during midterms and camping out on library floors during finals aren’t exactly out of the ordinary. In an often last-ditch effort to do well in our courses, we push our minds and bodies to the extreme — maybe regretting those weeknights we spent at parties, those lectures we tuned out, those classes we skipped.
In the last few hours before our exams, we’re likely hoping to memorize the concepts that will bump our test scores up a letter grade. The details that will help us notch a few points. The tiny tidbits that might earn us some extra credit. Our goal isn’t to learn the material.
And that theme isn’t reserved for exam periods alone.
For the most part, our definition of success in academia revolves around grades, test scores and the like. What’s more, our success is almost entirely dictated by our performance relative to our peers. It makes sense: Without cold, hard data, how can we possibly attempt to make assumptions about a massive, diverse group of students’ academic aptitude? How can we possibly compare them to one another in an effort to identify outliers? Alphabetical and numerical scores provide a simple, quantifiable answer. Or so it seems.
What does an A say about you? Our instinct is to believe it’s a sign of intelligence, conscientiousness and hard work. In truth, that A might certainly signify each one of those. It very well might also show that you’re a world-class test-taker, have great memorization skills or found a dozen lucky pennies before walking into your exam room.
Or, perhaps, that you know every last way to effectively conceal a cheat sheet.
Because, yes, students will go to such drastic measures to nab those grades. In 2012, nearly half of a class of 279 Harvard students was suspected of cheating on a take-home final exam, The New York Times reported. Roughly 70 of the students were placed on a one-year suspension from the university. In 2014, 43 Dartmouth students were accused of academic dishonesty on another exam, according to The Dartmouth. And many institutions have developed policies aimed to eradicate competitive students’ destruction or removal of others’ academic materials. Horror stories often involve students who briefly leave their notes unattended, returning only to find them shredded into confetti or simply vanished.
If this many of us are resorting to such strategies, we need to reconsider how we’re approaching educational assessment. Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who focuses on human behavior, education and parenting, says grades undermine learning by their very nature. “Too many students have been led to believe that getting A’s is the point of going to school,” he writes. “As motivation to get good grades goes up, motivation to explore ideas tends to go down…students try to avoid challenging tasks whenever possible…and one study after another shows that creativity and even long-term recall of facts are adversely affected by the use of traditional grades.” What happened to learning for the sake of learning? For taking classes because we’re interested in them or because we think they’d help us grow?
The pressure to earn good grades often causes us to place our intellectual curiosity on a second, and far inferior, tier. We’ve been trained to chisel through our textbooks rather than read them, leaving only the gems likely to appear on our exams behind. But what if something that mentally stimulates us lies outside of what we’re likely to be tested on? What makes one of us tick may bore another into the sleep they’ve so deprived themselves of.
Our minds all work differently and, as hard as it may be to tailor coursework to every student’s individual needs, we must stop taking grades for more than they are. An A isn’t necessarily a mark of intelligence. Instead, it is but one instance of apparent mastery of a given amount of material. It does not tell us anything specific about a student’s internal composition, strengths, weaknesses, interests or dreams. In short, grades offer an easy way to define a student’s aptitude, when aptitude isn’t even the most important part of the learning process at all.