Monday, November 24, 2008

old age and grades

One thing about going back to school when you're older is that you're more relaxed about grades. I stepped off the "must get perfect grades" treadmill when I graduated from college, and when I went back to grad school, grades just didn't stress me out as much.

This was a good thing, because I was taking a couple courses that I didn't have all the prerequisites for. That's one problem with going to a SLAC for college - a lot of my physical science courses were just general chem, physics, bio, whatever. My grad school was a big research university, so if you were doing, say, contaminant related stuff, you'd do contaminant chem, physics, bio, which diverges from the "general" curriculum early on. So I had some pretty big holes in my education. I was determined and fairly confident, so I thought I could just pick things up as I went along. And I did.

The problem came in when I was expected to figure out a whole bunch of complicated stuff in a short midterm. I hadn't taken a test in years, and certainly not one that I had no hope of finishing in time. I sucked.

Luckily, lots of other people sucked, too. But mostly not as spectacularly as me. The prof curved the exam and, well, I still didn't pass. If this had happened in undergrad, I probably would have a) cried, b) asked everybody except the professor what I should do, and c) developed an ulcer. I'm proud to report that I did none of these things. Well, I did get a little choked up at one point, but we'll ignore that.

What I did was meet with the professor. I said, "I do understand the material. But I didn't have time to go through even half of that test. I was working through stuff that I needed to have essentially memorized. Is there any way I can salvage this course, or should I drop it now?"

And I did salvage the course - I worked my ass off on all of the assignments, spent more time studying for the final than probably all the finals I'd studied for in undergrad, and pulled out an ok grade. It helped that the pace of the 2nd half of the course slowed way down for me - we had flown through all this stuff that was review for everybody else, and so the "new" stuff was a lot easier for me to keep up with.

My cumulative GPA in grad school was essentially the same as for undergrad. But my stress over grades was nonexistent in comparison. Why? Because I had finally internalized that I was in school to learn, not to get specific grades.


human said...

When students go directly to college from high school they tend to take their ideas about how to "do" school with them. When you're in high school, you are studying things because you are told to, and you do it how you are told to and when you are told to. There's no real agency there. But as an older adult you've (ideally) learned that life is a series of tradeoffs and that you can choose what to do - and how much time to devote to it - in the time you have available to you.

So, my second time around, as a non-traditional student, I spent a lot more time on courses in my major and essentially blew off courses that weren't in my major or otherwise interesting/useful with the minimum effort required to get a B or so.

I hope that now that I am applying to grad school the people who are evaluating my transcripts will take a similar view of things. Oh well if they don't: it's not like I could have done things any differently and kept my sanity.

Oger Lawyer said...

Grades are problematic. On the one hand, they ensure that people in a class are ranked according to some measurable statistic of knowledge retention. On the other they put pressure on people to achieve a certain arbitrary GPA for competitive purposes, even if they are completely uninterested in the course work. Throughout my schooling I was surrounded by people who were terrific memorizers but were completely unable to apply anything they learned. I find more and more that our system rewards people with minds like computers and not people who can think creatively. And god help you if you come up with a conclusion that disagrees with the professor. In most classes that is the fastest route to a C you can take. My point is that, while grades are important, keeping an eye on why you are in school (to learn, and be able to use that knowledge) is just as important.