Studying: For Learning or For Grades?
[context: social sciences]
The model answer, of course, is learning. But maybe the zealous in us needs a little taming. Could it be wiser to actually study for grades?
Last tutorial left me rather rattled. The class was ending with a question on the difference between theory and practice in visual ethnographic research, having taken photos for our Lunar New Year assignment. Having held myself back from contributing snippets which should be relevant, I was eyeballed into making the final remark.
I talked about how photos are very selective and ethnographers need very precise understandings to select and communicate what is a least distorted representation. Good point, but… I failed to address the question. The tutor tried to guide me along, but I rambled aimlessly. I seemed to be linking theory to practice instead. And so he finished by reiterating that there are differences between theory and practice which we should be sensitive to. I could tell he’s disappointed. I was crushed.
To say I lost all academic self-confidence on the commute home would be no hyperbole. Finally! Finally I have been exposed as a farce (again)! How shall I face my classmates again? How dare I ever think I could become an analyst, debating with the likes of SMU professor Eugene Tan on national TV! I shall flounder… until I wake up from my nap, that is.
Distance brings perspective.
Learning about Struggles
Amidst intensive work for looming assignments, I sneaked in moments to think about the underlying issues. Why can’t I string ideas together precisely like others can? It’s an issue affecting me not only in classrooms, but in normal conversations. Verbal coherence is one of my weakest suits. I tend to believe that it’s just the way I think. I am capable of many thoughts, just not speaking them with clarity. That’s why writing is my preferred mode of expression.
Maybe it’s true. But maybe I should be doing more to challenge this hypothesis. I ought to, because it might have a significant bearing on my career possibilities.
Soon I figured: Instead of worrying about speaking up, I should be working on my critical thinking faculties. I find the problem-solution model too crude for my liking, so I always try to dither around the edges. I appreciate that in myself, because that’s how I derive insight. Yet when it comes to tutorial discussions, there are questions and I must answer them. I must stop examining the board and start aiming for the bulls-eye.
My problem, put simply, is a limited view of assimilation.
Learning = Lateral Thinking?
I go through my readings diligently. I often feel excited at the enrichment. Sometimes I pursue stray lines of thought, like watching tearjerker documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ to learn more about schooling systems. I enjoy taking in new knowledge and insights. But I don’t actively question them, for their validity, their quality of argument or their topical relevance. I take what I take, and I thank them for it. Then I ramble in tutorials and crash onto bed.
I never prioritized analysis, because I feel perspectives are internalized. All the things I read expand my mental landscape. I don’t need to explain sociology to be able to apply it. I don’t need to explain the differences between theory and practice if I can sense it and derive my own strategies – or reflect when I’m writing a blog post like this. My incompetence keeps playing out because I regard grades as secondary to learning, no matter how important.
Grades = Effective Learning?
This, I figure, seems a bad approach. What if I paid more attention to grades?
It isn’t a lesser option. The pressure of grading forces one to learn in uncomfortable ways. Tutorials anguish me, but I cannot deny their importance for learning. Essays are painstaking, but each attempt leaves me more enriched. University fees aren’t cheap; what we are paying for is perhaps the obligation to work hard and develop our minds in ways we technically could on our own, but wouldn’t. (And secondarily, credentials.)
I do feel those pressures, but they don’t drive me to participate actively. I’m not motivated by them. I just can’t force myself to speak up when I’m unsure of myself. And each awry attempt sets back any momentum.
To solve the problem, I have to work at my assimilation. Assimilation = Internalization + Analysis.
Internalization is necessary, because it gives meaning to our knowledge and keeps curiosity flowing. With sociology, I want to expand my perspectives of the world, and I certainly have. I must now be conscientious about analysis, because that is the yardstick of academic assessment.
It is a practical consideration, not only for degrees but also for learning. Grades focus our attentions. When I peruse readings, I cannot simply read from start to end and give my thanks. I have to assess what I read, and figure out why I am reading it in the context of the module. I must dissect material and spill some blood. This might be easy for some but it’s hard for me, because I prefer to find common ground with authors.
No doubt such a systematic approach takes some joy out of reading. I do fear that in de-emphasizing divergent thoughts – outside module requirements – I might blunt my curiosity. But I have continually made time to read library books, even if it were just pages a week. Maybe my curiosities are stronger than I think.
I should exhort myself to give analysis a go, again and again. Spend less time on consumption to free more time for dialogue. Bring that dialogue to tutorials and hone it there – at worst I can spend evening in bed! Strive for good grades not for grades per se, but for better learning.
My gungho-ness will evaporate by next tutorial, but hopefully this rumination has expanded my perspective enough to move me further in my lifelong journey of learning.
p.s. I probably can organize this post better, but I thought to leave it as such to illustrate how systematic analysis is not really a strength of mine. In other words, I’m lazy, and I’m scared I will have to lie in bed all day and mess up my college triangle of priorities otherwise.
Maybe you readers can show me how analysis can be done on this post? I won’t be grading!