Imagine a middle-school classroom.
I’ll help you. It’s chilly, and the smell of whiteboard markers mixes with Axe and the pungent hot Cheetos someone’s hiding under the desk. Beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights, students shuffle pages, feet, and the unidentifiable contents of a backpack’s deepest pocket. The teacher’s voice cuts like a judge’s at a sentencing: “Clear your desks for the test!”
Groans echo around the room. I groan with them. I’m twelve, and I want to fit in. But I inwardly rejoice, because I love exams.
No, you didn’t misread that. Meet pre-university Elizabeth: the awkward bookworm who can’t play sports but never misses a quiz question. Other students hear “exam” and think hard questions, bad grades, and stress. Middle-school Elizabeth thinks plenty of time to read a novel while the rest of the students sweat over the questions.
“Test day” meant “free day.”
Fast forward. Hear that familiar, squeaky VHS-tape sound from your childhood…
Now imagine a college classroom: students with iPhones, professor with a full-to-bursting briefcase. No need for a “clear your desks” announcement; the students are all too aware of the impending disaster. They frantically review notes and hold whispered, last-minute conferences about uncertain concepts.
There, slouched in the back row, sipping coffee, you see university student Elizabeth. Her stomach knots with fear as much as any of her classmates’. In the past two years, she’s received her first bad grades. Exams now terrify her.
Funny how things aren’t scary until they’re relevant.
This week, after receiving uncomfortable grades on several exams, I’ve coped by reorganising my priorities. Although I apparently haven’t learned the material my professors hoped I would, I’ve learned a few other things:
…that I don’t disappoint my professor by missing questions. Professors don’t expect me to know all the answers–shocking, I know. They know I’m human, fallible, and sometimes confused. They care that I put in effort, pay attention, and consider new ideas. But bad exam grades don’t ruin their opinion of me.
…that worthwhile things require effort. Stuff was easy in middle school and high school. I never studied and rarely had homework; I finished it all in class. But life doesn’t have a “get out of homework free” card, and eventually, I have to work for something. I have to dedicate time and effort and recognise that I might still fail. And then I have to recognise …
…that time and effort are not wasted, no matter the outcome. If I won’t be successful, why waste the time trying? I think. Because I get a little further every time. Because I learn dedication and hard work even when I can’t see immediate results. Because time spent on worthwhile subjects is worthwhile time even if I fail the test.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that one bad exam grade does not define my ability. No matter how much I have–or haven’t–studied, no matter how I feel about the material, no matter my grade compared to everyone else’s… an exam grade doesn’t define me, my knowledge, or my potential.
And that’s pretty freeing. Life is worth the effort, but the process is worth more than the final exam. I mean, how many questions do you remember from your last exam? I’ll answer for myself: none. But I do remember the discussions we had in class. I remember the thoughts we explored, the new perspectives, and the inspiration to think deeper and more critically.
And that inspiration, that fresh breeze of ideas calling me to explore the new, uncomfortable, and exciting– that’s what matters.