The bad school grades conundrum

During school, we used to get new textbooks in early May for the new academic year beginning in June. Being the summer holidays and having loads of free time on my hands, add to that a love of reading, it was a chance I just couldn’t let go. I used to devour those new books, from English literature to History to Science, in about 40 days flat. To this day I vividly remember a few chapters and poems in the literature books and a few ‘why-this-works’ illustrations from the Science books.

Then came the academic year, and the tests followed. On the same topics that were in the books. On the same topics that I had read and understood so passionately. I did secure average (and in some cases, above-average) grades throughout my school life, but nothing to set the world on fire. Why didn’t the passion translate into the much-coveted grades?

I suppose many people reading this blog would have a similar conundrum.

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When I looked back at this question, I realized that I was missing an important perspective. Most of the grades which I lost were for questions which did not test my level of understanding, but tested how much I could remember facts and figures and techniques. I actually did score well on the questions which challenged my understanding of a subject or tested my reasoning. Consequently, I was ready for the tests life was going to throw at me in the years to come regardless of how good or bad my school grades were.

Assessments are important, sure, but there are other ways to carry them out. In an age where information can be readily searched online and analyzed at length, does testing students for their ability to remember the bare facts count for anything? Could the resources be better utilized in discussing and testing a student’s reasoning behind certain events in History or the logic behind certain laws in Science? Sure they can. Can questions on the dates of the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England be replaced by a discussion and debate about its effects? Yes, of course. Instead of factual questions on an Internal Combustion Engine, could students be encouraged to learn about it through mockups, models and in-class seminars? Yes they can. Assessment by experience, if possible in a ‘live’ setting, is probably one of the most effective ways of determining how good you are.

Perhaps I still remember the stories and concepts in my old school books because, experience-wise, I connected to them at that moment or found parallels and examples to the topics discussed in them later in my adult life, wherein those analogies came back to me. Its something that has helped me in things like writing blogs on this site or teaching in front of a class of students or approaching a difficult problem in an unconventional way.

I never read those books to study for a test, but for the pure enjoyment in acquiring and understanding a new piece of knowledge. As Seth Godin puts it succinctly,

“If you read a book to take a test, you’re missing the point.”

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