How to focus on learning instead of marks
One day, while in the throes of studying for finals, I came across a discussion post on a course page where a classmate asked whether we would still be receiving 0.6% of our final grade for the completion of practice quizzes as noted in our syllabus prior to COVID-19 changes. Bear in mind, my school adopted an optional Pass/Fail method of grading as part of the pandemic response. In essence, there were no consequences for getting a 51% on a course. Yet, this post was one among many instances I witnessed classmates obsessing over grades.
Everyone who has been through the veterinary school application process is acutely aware of the importance of grades in undergraduate studies. In 2019, the academic average of admitted students in my veterinary program was 90 percent. During my undergrad, I refused to play the game; I took courses for interest, I partook in more activities than I could handle—many of which strayed from the pre-vet path. I ended up having to take extra courses to upgrade my marks. I looked for the “easiest” courses, scoured the internet for test banks, and obsessed over every little detail. Every time I received a mark, I would calculate what its impact was on my final grade. I regularly had nightmares about missing tests. I lived and breathed school and it made me a miserable person.
Grades are an extrinsic motivator for learning, which studies have shown to not only be inferior to intrinsic motivators (meaning our interest in the task of learning itself), but actually actively undermines it.1 In addition to poor mental health outcomes, grade obsession leads to students becoming less interested in learning and less likely to think creatively. This is doubly concerning when we’re discussing knowledge we need for our lifelong profession.
So how do we stop obsessing over grades?
Consider what the grade means to you. Do you see it as a reflection of your capabilities? Recognize that grades are simply a way for institutions to compare you to others—it is not the only barometer of your knowledge. Moreover, there is so much information in our curriculum, it is impossible to know everything. We don’t even need to know all of it for practice. Think about every time you finished a test and thought, “Wow, I knew a lot more than what the test asked.” Remember the moments when you’re in clinic where the wealth of knowledge you possess has come in handy. For most of us in this stage of our academic careers, these instances are what really matters.
For some of us, a good grade is needed for scholarships or internships. In these cases, it is more important to think about how meaningful obsessing over a mark is. Ask yourself how useful it is arguing with a professor over one question out of a hundred on your exam. Would a clinician rather employ a well-rounded candidate with an A or an insufferable one with an A+?
For others, good grades are linked to other facets of our life like parental acceptance and happiness.2 It is essential that we unlearn these associations. Grades are not even the best way to assess your capabilities, let alone your character or worth. You care deeply about animals. You are motivated. You are deserving. A number on a transcript does not change these immutable facts.
We may also benefit from taking stock of our lives. If someone asked you, “What do you in your spare time?” Do you have an answer? We cannot be defined by our occupation, and we cannot forget the other parts of us. If you obsess over school and grades, you’re more than likely to be neglecting other parts of your life. Nurture your hobbies, spend meaningful time with your friends and family. The time will come when we are done school, and we will be confronted by our reflection in the mirror.
Changing our mindset won’t be easy, it’s how we’ve survived and how we got to where we are. But it’s imperative we do so, for our performance as veterinarians, our mental health, and our happiness.
- Michael H. Romanowski (2004) Student Obsession with Grades and Achievement, Kappa Delta Pi Record, 40:4, 149-151, DOI: 10.1080/00228958.2004.10516425
- Dittmann, M. (2002, December). Self-esteem based on external sources has mental health consequences. Monitor on Psychology, 33(11). http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec02/selfesteem