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Maybe if we’re unwilling to fail, we’re unwilling to learn.
By Abby Petersen
Before I packed my family’s Toyota RAV4 with clothes, furniture and books labeled “Getsch 219,” before I signed myself up for a 7:40 a.m. biology class, before I almost failed introduction to chemistry, I sat on the fourth floor of a church building and listened to my high school adviser and history teacher tell me the speech I’d heard hundreds of times. The speech I tuned out then, 16 and naive. The speech I remember almost every day now, 21 and still naive.
He grabbed an Expo marker and rolled his chair to the whiteboard.
“Suppose two students take the same class. One knows about 60 percent of the material going in, and one knows about 90 percent,” he said, drawing two haphazard bar graphs.
“The student who knows 60 percent learns 20 percent more of the material,” he continued, scribbling an increase to the first graph. “But the student who starts out knowing 90 percent learns 5 percent more.”
My classmates and I stared blankly at his artwork. He leaned forward in his chair, pointing the marker at us.
“Now, what do those grades amount to using a traditional grading scale?”
We knew. B minus and an A. He tilted his head.
“But who learned more?”
I filed away this oft-repeated mantra in the back of my head, viewing it as insightful but unrealistic. Yeah, maybe a letter printed in a cardstock document handed to my parents wasn’t the best indicator of my actual learning, but that was how education worked and had always worked for me. I was a pragmatist.
I listened, too, when he looked at us across the desk and said, “take responsibility for your learning.”
I listened when he told me I was ready for college, despite my apprehensions.
So when I barely made it through the introductory chemistry course I took in AC228 fall 2014, I moved on. When I tripped over the chemistry textbook one night in my dorm room, I laughed when I hit the floor.
There’s no A on my academic transcript for chemistry. But I hadn’t known anything about organic compounds going in. I was the first graph drawn in Expo marker on that whiteboard. I was the student whose learning didn’t count for the grade.
Maybe it takes failing something hard to realize that failing is nothing compared to the fear of it. Maybe it takes the words of your high school adviser to shake you from your delusional nursing major and start taking classes that fit your interests, rather than your career goals.
Either way, I won’t graduate summa cum laude. But I will have learned something.
By my junior year of college, I realized the clock was ticking. I drafted several different four-year plans and panicked. I loaded my semesters up with 18 credits. I browsed through the academic catalog as if it were People Magazine. I registered for classes I didn’t need in subjects about which I knew little. I browsed through the required books for classes I didn’t have time to take and requested them from the library.
“Take responsibility for your learning,” my teacher’s voice echoed in my ears.
I have learned and am still learning how to laugh at my Moodle grades. How to go to bed before midnight no matter what’s due the next day. Because I’m teaching myself to always want to be the first graph on the whiteboard. The one who showed up with little and came away with much, even if it doesn’t show up in the gradebook.
A grade can tell me what I know on exam day, what I’ve been told and what I’ve been lucky enough to remember – and little else. I decide what I learn, not a syllabus, not a professor and not a grade.