How I Aced a Test, but Failed at Learning

Midterms: Collectively they make up two to three weeks of hell-on-earth along with a fair portion of one’s final grade (upwards of 40% in some classes).  Screw up on one, and you’ll find yourself taking the course again…

Yesterday, those three weeks of hell came to a close at around 10:30am after handing in my final exam.  I don’t know how, but I did pretty well on my midterms this time around: two As, two Bs, and two TBD.  I did extremely well on one test in particular – an upper level finance class.  The professor’s young, doesn’t assign homework, doesn’t take attendance, and admits that the book  is “optional.”  I can’t tell if I love her or hate her – seems pretty pathetic for a school with tuition higher than Harvard.  But that’s beside the point…

The responsibilities for the course are pretty minimal: two group projects, a mid-term, and a final.  In other words, not much room for error.  The mid-term was going to be based off lecture slides (that – from what I can tell – are premade by the publisher of the textbook I no longer have in my possession) and we would be allowed to bring a one page “cheat-sheet.” #Score

So I went through all the lecture slides, the optional homework, and basically taught myself that problem x matches up with equation y solved by steps 1, 2, 3.  I didn’t really know what I was doing or understand the meaning behind this random interest rate or annuity payment, but I knew how to get them and that the question “why is this important” would never be asked or tested on.  To be honest, I think I spent more time writing everything out on that cheat sheet than actually practicing any problems.

Exam day came, I took the test, and ended up getting a solid A (a good 12/15 points higher than the class average).  Initially, I was pretty pleased with myself.  It’s always nice to not have to beat around the bush with my parents about grades.  I’m not a bad student, but I certainly get my fair share of Bs making an A on a midterm (especially without a curve) a pleasant rarity.

But as I was sitting in class, I silently laughed to myself: I just failed.  The only thing I got an A on was memorization and matching.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I didn’t know what these calculated numbers meant.  And I definitely didn’t know how I would have gotten an A without that piece of paper.

Which brought me to an interesting conclusion – and the very title of this post – I aced my test, but failed at learning.  After I let that sink in, I realized that this wasn’t the only time that this has happened.  In fact, it happens pretty regularly, almost a common occurrence.  We sit in these big lecture halls not really paying attention until it’s a week or two when midterms roll around, finally crack open the book, and cram to memorize as much as we can.

Now this isn’t always the case…I took an awesome human resources class a little over a year ago that was all case-based.  The professor was fantastic.  He used the book from time-to-time, but the “lecture” was pretty much discussion based with a focuses on business cases.  In other words, you either read the case, knew the material, and contributed in class or didn’t.  There were no formulas or cheat sheets…you either knew it, or didn’t.  I got a B just for the record.

Sadly, these great classes (another one would be Advanced Advertising) with great professors aren’t a dime a dozen – at least in my three and a half year experience.  They just don’t happen.  Professors are tenured, land themselves as the head of their department, and sit back in mediocrity. It’s funny because one of these professors I speak of was complaining (and that’s putting it in a very kind, diplomatic way) about students having access to publisher test banks.  He said that students (who buy these test banks from legitimate sources like Amazon) should be reprimanded for academic dishonesty.  I laughed…and so desperately wanted to comment on his ignorance.  But – like many – I put more value on my grade and so I sat in bewilderment.  This man – who’s probably being paid somewhere around $80k to teach a couple classes per week- is complaining not about unfair advantage, but that he now has to work harder.

Instead of plucking fifty or so multiple choice answers from the test bank that came along with the course textbook (that I assume he didn’t buy on his own dime nor knows how much it costs), now has to make a choice between one of two options:

  • A.  Come up with a test of questions assembled on his own time and with his own “intelligence.”
  • B.  Continue to use the test bank on future exams even though he knows two/three students have access to it.

We’ll see what choice he decides to make for the final, but I have my money on option B. *Checks Amazon*

Which brings me back to this massive question I keep asking myself, what am I learning in school?  It’s scary…to ace a test or receive a high grade in a course that you couldn’t even begin to explain.  In many respects it’s embarrassing…that I chose to go to an expensive school with tuition dollars going towards unaccountable, worthless professors (or ads for the the basketball team plastered on the floor of the Foggy Bottom Metro…I don’t even want to begin to think how much they cost).

I realize it’s not just a GWU thing and I wish I could say my experience was an anomaly, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I did.  It’s odd – and maybe it’s just being young and dumb – but sometimes I think I would have been far better off in a major that had something to do with the humanities…something that required more than memorization or spitting up an equation like history or journalism.  Yea they’re not as “marketable” as Finance, but at least you’re getting your moneys worth.

Whenever I talk to my dad about the pointless classes I’m forced to take he always replies with, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” An incredibly annoying – but accurate – statement.  He’s right.  I don’t know what I don’t know, but I do know that college is a hell of a lot different than what it was two/three decades ago.  You didn’t have computers or Google.  You had a library, a textbook, and some paper where you either learned course work the right way now or learned it the right way when you were repeating the class.  Who’s right?  Probably dad…but only time will tell.

I know this all probably sounds like me complaining about GW (and a little of it is), but I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one who thinks this.  I can’t possibly be the only one who thinks it’s ok to “do well” in classes, but never learn anything.  I can’t possibly be the only one who think it’s ok for professors to glide by on a student’s dime.  I can’t possible be the only one who’s not willing to accept the bs and go on my merry way.

So what’s the point?  I guess it goes back to my core belief that numbers (like birth-year, ACT scores, or GPAs) are all pretty insignificant indicators of ability, knowledge, or intelligence.  Sure they give a good idea, but they’re finite.  They’re based on different criteria with different emphasis on different things.  I remember taking a class last year where I got Bs on the tests, but always contributed in class.  Participation was a percentage of the overall grade and I walked out with an A-.  What grade did I really deserve?  I don’t know…all up to interpretation.

So the next time you get a B (or lower) in your class, ask yourself:  Is it better to get an A and fail at learning or is it better to get a B and walk away with knowing something.  If you ask me, I’ll always go with the latter.



  1. Zoe

    Hi Dean,

    As usual, great post! I agree with the point you are making 100%. I graduated from business school in May. Anyways, I had the same unfortunate experience with a few of my professors too. I remember wishing (and still do wish) that I could do it all over again and take the humanities route – because there you actually learn things of substance! Granted, I did have some incredible profs, and I did learn a few things here and there. But, when I look back on my education, there is nothing I learned there that I couldn’t have learned in one of my internships. I think the best way to go for many is to do the humanities route and take internships in your field. Its just the sad reality that no matter where you are, business schools have the tendency to become a bit of a joke at some point.

  2. TinaD

    You make an excellent point. Props to you for recognizing the problem; many students can’t be bothered. Do you mind if I just put this soapbox down? Any more, what you are learning in a class is not the facts of the discipline–so many of them change so fast, often while you are still in school–but where to go to get the new facts (or formulas, or technologies, or whatever.) The trouble is that skill-based learning is a pain in the bum to evaluate on anything other than a pass/fail basis. After all, which would you rather grade, a pile of lab reports or a pile of multiple-choice pop quizzes? So some professors–many professors–skate along testing recall and memorization because that’s easy and gives them an inarguable number at the end of the term, which keeps them from being dinged for unfairness in student evals and on Rate My Professor, figuring that if you really need it professionally, you’ll remember that the textbook exists and order a used copy from Amazon.

    College used to be a right of passage, a mark of intelligence, and the conveyance of a knowledge base that was considered essential for high-level participation in the culture. (I’m looking at you, Government degrees.) Now it is universally available, 3/4 vocational training for vocations that will have changed by the time the curriculum’s written, and yet we still have valedictorians. Soapbox disengaged.

  3. Uncle Bill

    Excellent Dean! You won’t be surprised once in the workplace your peer group isn’t any different. After my Project Management courses, I was surprised how few grasped the difference between the procedures to follow and what they mean. Your client will request what they want, but it’s up to you to discover what they need. That’s something Steve Jobs understood quite well, and it didn’t happen by intuition alone.

  4. Rhiannon

    Great read, especially when I’m taking a break from cramming for a test tomorrow!

    You make some really valid points. My thinking, when it comes to school, is not necessarily make the best grades out of anyone, but to have an understanding of what I’m being taught. I’m very lucky that I’m in a program that has professors that are passionate about what they teach. When I was previously in the medical field, I encountered numerous nursing students who would cram to remember a list of things for a test only to forget them the next day. A scary thought when you remember that they will be taking care of other lives in the future.

    This may be a generational problem too. Our generation has become so obsessed with making the highest grades possible or getting the furthest ahead in whatever we’re doing, that we lose sight of what we initially set out to achieve.

    Now I’m just rambling, delaying my cramming I need to get back to 🙂

    Once again, great article Dean.

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