On the Pleasure of Tests

by Catherine Arjet

The girl at the table next to me is helping a classmate understand material for their chemistry test tomorrow. She’s been here all day talking about different types of bonds and molecules, and looks like she hasn’t slept in days. In a weird way, I’m jealous. As I sit here writing one of the four papers I have due next week, her frantic energy and dedication to the material reminds me of what I’m missing out on by taking classes that have few (if any) tests. There’s an incredible focus that comes with being terrified of a test you have tomorrow. It becomes you and the material. You (hopefully) know what you need to study and you can just dedicate your entire mind to it. Sure, you can get some of that with a paper; just last night I spent three hours reading film theory – and if that’s not dedication I don’t know what is – but there’s always more you can do. Almost every paper topic I’ve written on in my academic career could easily take up twice as many pages as I’ve been assigned, so I’m always left wondering if I’m doing enough, or even if I’m doing too much. Is my topic too broad? Too narrow? Should I have brought in this point? Or would that clutter the paper? It’s not so with tests. Either you know the material or you don’t. You know it’s relevant if it was covered in lecture or in the reading. You don’t have to wonder if everything you did was super off topic and if you’ll have to cut it later.

I’ve never felt confident about a paper; I spend so long looking to improve it that I notice its vast amount of errors before acknowledging any of its merits. Unlike a test, there’s no concrete right or wrong answer with a paper, or at least not one I have access to, because I’m such a perfectionist and I strive for A’s on everything that kills me. There’s no instant gratification with a paper; by the time I get it back it’s been so long I barely remember what I wrote. Or if I do I spend weeks having no idea if I’ve done a good enough job.

Test taking, however, is something I’m good at. I can circle a letter or fill in a blank for write a short paragraph explaining a concept with ease. The insane memorization drills my dad made me do as a child (learning everything from Shakespeare to Paleozoic periods by the time I got to kindergarten) made sure I can memorize almost anything a teacher gives me. I know it’s not the holistic learning approach for which I chose a small liberal arts school, but it doesn’t hurt my GPA.

Last year I took mostly classes that had more tests than papers. I spent many a long night in the study room of my friend’s dorm (since we were in two of the same classes) endlessly going over the material. We’d spend hours figuring out how to calculate the value of a bond, the stages of product growth and brand image, or memorizing a seemingly endless list of terms. At some point one of us would say: “Alright, I think we’ve got most of it and I’m exhausted. I’ll get up early and study the rest of it tomorrow.” The next day we’d see each other as we filed into the classroom and smile weakly at each other and take our seats. As soon as I got the paper I was in the zone of test taking magic. Maybe it’s just because I psych myself out so much that I’m always sure they’re going to be worse than they are, but when I have that first “Oh, I know this” moment it all becomes so much better. I have a concrete reason why I studied for so long the night before. Generally when I leave the test I have an idea of how I did and I can put it out of my head until it comes back. I know I don’t need to know all of the material, just 93% and most of the time I can tell if I’ve gotten that.

This girl I studied with graduated in May and now works as an account manager. She’s putting her degree to use, and working in her field. Of the two of us, I always had the better test taking skills, – memorizing, summarizing, guessing – but I know those don’t translate into “real world” skills, and she is clearly enjoying success without being perfect at test taking. Sometimes I worry about what will happen when I, too, am in the professional where you worth does not depend on how well you can answer questions in a 60-90 minute block. Will I be able to replicate my academic success in a professional setting or are tests the only thing I’m good at?

I mentioned this fear to a professor recently who said “well, you’ll have that wealth of knowledge you memorized” however I’m not sure that’s true, and even if it was, I’m not sure what good it is. The other day I was helping a friend study for a Principles of Accounting test, a class I took two years ago. She asked me for help on a problem where all you need to do is apply one of those formulas I memorized for the class and I realized I had no idea what the formula was. Yes I can memorize something for the length of a test, or even a semester if I know it’s going to be on the final, but as soon as I don’t need to know it, it’s gone again. Even if I could keep all this in my head though, why would I need to? It took me about five seconds to find the formula my friend was looking for online, and if I’m in a situation in the business world where I really need to know that accounting formula, I can find it again, probably in that same amount of time. Like most of my generation, I am very seldom without a smartphone and while I can rattle of a name or date at the drop of a hat, so can Siri.

I guess my real question is was it all worth it? Were the sixteen years I’ve spent learning how to take tests misspent? Our education system rewards students for being able to learn facts and information for a very short amount of time, but now I’m almost done with my education, I’m realizing that almost no other system values that. I always felt like a phony. Like my skills in memorization and test taking artificially inflated my GPA and therefore how people see my intelligence. I’m constantly telling my friends “I’m not actually smart, I just get good grades.” and now I’m worried that, without grades, people will start to see that without my having to say anything.

Catherine Arjet is a senior from Austin Texas who is double majoring in business and English with a concentration in global business and can usually be found trying get a cat to let her pet it.