Why I Hate Exams

by Courtney Henning | 10/22/98 5:00am

I'd like to ask all my professors to do me a personal favor -- don't ever tell me that grades don't matter.

Too many times in my academic career I have had a teacher or professor tell me something to the effect of, "Oh, now, all I want is for you to do your best. Don't write something boring. Go out on a limb! Grades don't matter." Well, I am a sucker for this advice and I generally follow it to the letter. I end up writing my paper from the heart. I walk out onto that limb and say something that wasn't discussed in class. When I turn in those "out on a limb" papers, I feel really good.

And then I get back the B- or C+ and I recall that grades do matter. Supposedly, we go to school to learn, but more often, it seems that my purpose is to get good grades. And unfortunately, getting good grades is not necessarily synonymous with successful learning.

Maybe you would argue that our purpose is not to get good grades. After all, a grade is just a letter printed on a slip of paper -- what power does that have? But in junior high, I worked for good grades so that I could get admitted to my high school, an all-girls Catholic school across the street from UCLA. (Hmm...maybe I should have gotten bad grades.) And after getting into high school, I had to keep up the grades so that I could get into the best possible college. And now that I'm at Dartmouth, I realize that if I want to go to grad school, once again, someone is going to be looking at my grades. So those little letters on slips of paper have considerable importance for me. How could I not want to get good grades?

I really have no argument with papers. I read something, I learn something, I think about it, and then I try to convey some of this onto my Kiewit print-out. I just wish my professors had mind-reading powers because I can't always get what's in my head onto the computer screen.

My argument is with exams. Little quizzes, midterms and finals. I hate them all.

When I have an exam, I study like there is no tomorrow. If possible, I start studying days beforehand. For example, for a history exam this past Monday, I started reviewing my notes the Wednesday before. Then, the day/night before an exam, I study until I can think about nothing except the subject at hand.

My roommate will try and tell me something and I will just stare blankly at her and say, "I have no idea what you just said. Start over." I wouldn't say that I cram for exams. Rather, I saturate myself with information until not even caffeine has an effect on me.

Last fall, during my humanities final, it occurred to me that I am a bulimic scholar. I gorge myself on information the 24 hours before an exam and then in the space of an hour or two, I vomit it all back onto my blue book.

For the exam I just mentioned, I had ten books memorized as if I had written them myself. Now, less than a year later, I could maybe tell you a bit about those texts -- Chaucer wrote in Old English, Orlando is a story about a man-woman. But I'd really have to concentrate over a large cup of coffee and have the opportunity to skim through the books again to explain anything beyond the basics to you. I got a good grade in humanities, but what did I learn from studying for that final?

But maybe I shouldn't resent my professors when they tell me that grades don't matter. Even though they cannot give me an A for trying my best and going out on a limb, they are reminding me that grades and learning are two very different things and in essence encouraging me to strive for the latter of the two.