The Fear of the Grade-Point Average

Exams: a word that is universally dreaded by all students. Results: a seemingly insurmountable monster that preys on the minds of insecure teenagers. Exams. Results. Futures. They’re all relatively simple words—the majority of the student body can spell them correctly—yet the weight that they hold on our lives as teenagers surpasses any definition that the Oxford English Dictionary can provide.

Term two seems to be a volatile time for seniors—especially those in year 13. We seem to be situated in the midpoint of two separate lives. Our high school identities are in a process of converging and conflicting with the identities that we imagine ourselves to magically adorn once we step into the mystical ‘real world’. Half of us are silently biding the time until we can step outside of the boundaries of Macleans College for the last time; half of us tremble at the prospect of leaving behind the womb that a secondary education provides us with. Regardless of what camp you sit in, the thought of leaving high school is a scary one. We can say all we want about school, but it’s undeniable that up until this point, we have been guided through our lives and decision making processes by adults whom we respect (or, in some cases, merely tolerate). Some complain that this is a stifling process, but the truth is, there is a comfort in how safe and simple life can be at high school.

On paper, I am 1148. On paper, I am a four-digit number and a series of Cambridge question papers that help rank my performance compared to the rest of the many four-digit numbers out there. I have done fairly well in my past exams. It’s partially because I’ve put in the time and effort towards working for the marks I want, and it’s also partially because I have learned how to play the Cambridge system. Please do not be mistaken; I do not take pride in the previous statement. In fact, I would even venture as far as to say that I am ashamed that so many of us have learned to ‘play the system’.

I’m not here to ponder on whether or not Cambridge is a good examination system, and I’m (almost) certain that the issue that I’m writing about is universal to many of the examination systems offered in New Zealand. I’d also like to say in advance that my words do not apply to everyone; they are wholly my own opinion. The problem with ‘playing the system’ in fear of failure is that we have developed an academic culture of selective learning and recognition.

Take myself as a typical example; when it comes to exams, the Cambridge syllabus has always been my bible—the one true material that will lead me to the light of understanding and comprehension. In the past, I have always learned what needed to be learned, gone through the majority of the past papers so I know what has been tested and what is likely to be tested in the future, and along the way, I forego the opportunity to challenge myself beyond the short list of bullet points that makes up a year’s worth of learning.

A few months back, I had a conversation with one of my friends who attended the New Zealand Chemistry Olympiad Training Camp. I made a passing comment about why anyone would want to do more chemistry than they actually needed to, and she replied that, “Some people actually LIKE chemistry.” The exchange was insignificant, but thinking back to it now, I realize how much it highlights the problem with the academic culture that intensive exams seem to breed. I was never above the system, and that conversation just highlights the fact that I had forgotten the joys of learning just for the sake of learning. The fact that I was shocked that someone would challenge themselves above what was required to get into the top A* band is telling of the way that I viewed school, and my education up until that point.

I have a wonderful chemistry teacher this year; his passion for the subject constantly reminds me that there is a beauty behind academics which we, as students, often fail to appreciate. Yet his classes also highlight this problem of accepted regurgitation that is rampant in all areas of our education. While teaching us about Organic Chemistry, Dr Lal often taught us about things that weren’t in the ‘holy’ Cambridge Syllabus. They were all small tidbits of information, but to me, they contributed towards an understanding about the interconnected nature of all of the organic molecules that exist in our universe. This was a connection I never really forged in my previous AS course, where I simply learned what I needed to learn, and developed a superficial understanding of the theory that never explained the WHYs behind the processes we were required to study.

However, many in the class were frustrated because they had been provided with information that they didn’t need to know for the end-of-year exams. Many of us raised our hands asking, “Do we need to know this?” and when the answer was, “Well, no”, there would be a compulsion to drop our pens and switch off our minds. I’m not trying to be accusatory, nor am I trying to paint myself in a holier-than-thou light, but I am trying to illustrate the general acceptance that many of us have in regards to limiting our education and our capabilities for growth, in the same way we ourselves are limited to a four-digit number at the end of the year.

I suppose the point to my long-winded article (/rant, depending on how you’d like to view it) is a simple one: do not forget the beauty in learning, and don’t get too stressed out about exams. I know that it’s probably difficult to truly understand that at this current moment, and I will not deny that these results play an important role in helping to shape our futures, but at the same time we don’t have to sacrifice a truly engaging education for good grades. Do not let yourself be limited to four digits and a few papers at the end of this year—challenge yourself, and never forget what it feels like to truly understand a difficult math concept or the potent passion beneath an author’s words. Regardless of how you decide to define your education and experience at high school, I wish you all the best of luck for the rest of the year, and all I can say is: Breathe in, and breathe out–you’ll get through this.

Written by Wendy Lee. Edited by Annaliese Wheeler and Saffron Huang.

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