learning matters more than success

We have sent the message that success (not true success, but grades or marks) matters more than learning.

When we force students to study for what is purely on the test, we as instructors and they as students miss out on true exploration. How many times have we studied for a test in college but skipped over some really valuable, interesting material we skimmed over in the textbook but immediately dismissed it because that material wouldn’t be on the test? How many times have we sat through a class and the smart kid asked a question about information that wasn’t on the test and we got visibly flustered at them because they were ‘wasting our time’? I have absolutely done both. I’ve taken some really interesting classes in the past that I probably didn’t take away as much or learn all that I could have because I was stuck in a rut of only studying for what would be on the test. In certain classes, I remember obtaining copies of the old exams and using those questions as a guide for what would be on my particular test. Yea, this helped me get an A. But what does an A even mean in that sense? I definitely didn’t learn more than that kid who asked the extraneous questions.

This reminds me of an article I read about a year ago or so. It discusses that although we view students with the highest GPAs as the most successful, does that really mean that they are the most successful? Not in my opinion, but is that because I’ve seen the light and finally understand that grades shouldn’t be what defines a person? As a broader question, what even defines success? Is it simply a person with a 4.0 grade point average? Well, no, but that is often how success is measured. And how is it that some can quickly dismiss the fact that some of the most famous and wealthy entrepreneurs were college dropouts, especially if we are held to the standard that success means good grades? I think we often find that students who perform well on tests and have good GPAs are more often the people who are good at following rules and passing tests, or good at learning mindLESSly, if you will.

I find it easy to admit this now because I have succeeded in my graduate work, but my college GPA was a 2.7. I’ll repeat that, and add that it was actually a 2.74 (because that makes such a difference, lol). I know that I am smarter and more capable than that number makes me appear. I liked to party in college and spend time with my friends, and I often put social time before study time. Does that make me a bad person? It’s not that I’m not smart or that I’m not devoted to learning. Is this number something that should define me for the rest of my career? It felt like it was going to define me forever when I was a fresh graduate. Past performance does not always predict future results. I was very privileged to be able to take a gap year after college – my mom works at a small, liberal arts college at home, so I got to live at home for free while loading up on relevant courses and conducting research with a cool and kind professor. I know that it was this gap year that helped me get into graduate school. When applying for master’s programs that year, I applied three places. One school turned down my application immediately because my GPA was not a 3.0. I interviewed and was accepted at the other two schools, but that didn’t come without questions about my college GPA. I have since successfully completed a master’s program in entomology and am currently working on a PhD. I think that is a way better indicator of my success than my undergraduate GPA could have ever been.