I frequently meet with students who express high anxiety over test taking, either because they have difficulty learning course content or because they experience a mental block when they sit down to take the test. Our conversation generally winds its way to one of my most repeated phrases: focus on learning, not on grades. I drive home this point with any individual or group I meet with to talk about academic success. Whether on tests, papers, homework or projects, I practically beg students to exert their effort on the learning process and to let go of any fixation on grades. A funny thing happens for those who invest in learning – they generally end up with good grades, too. Conversely, students can get an A in a class without learning much from the course.
What does it look like to focus on learning? Let’s start with a commonly repeated formula that suggests that students should spend two hours out of class for every hour in class. To be frank, most college students aren’t spending sufficient time on learning activities once they leave class; they are spending about one hour out of class for every hour in class – half the recommended time. This standard will certainly fluctuate based on course demands and time of semester, yet a survey of students at my institution indicated that 70 percent spent 15 hours or less per week preparing for class (studying, reading, writing, doing homework or lab work, analyzing data, rehearsing and other academic activities). Given that a full-time course load is 12 to 18 hours of class per week, many students are skimping on learning activities.
So what? If they’re completing their reading (a big “if” for some students), turning in their homework, and taking notes in class, isn’t that enough? It would be enough if learning was just a matter of jumping through hoops, but we all know that there is more to learning than checking off boxes on a to-do list. Consider musicians preparing for a first performance, or athletes getting ready for the first game of the season. Neither type of performer does a set of activities only once to achieve mastery; instead, new material is introduced then practiced … and practiced … and practiced … until the musician doesn’t have to think about fingering on an instrument and the athlete doesn’t have to contemplate the motion needed to shoot the ball. The process has become so ingrained, so much a part of the person, that execution comes naturally; the mind and body have developed mastery of the movements required to accomplish the goal.
Too often, students don’t apply to academics what they’ve learned about rehearsal and practice in other domains such as sports, music, theater, even video games. Greater learning will occur if students complete reading, finish homework, take notes, and then review their material. Some review might be daily, other review might be weekly, but by the time a test comes up, an effective learner will have interacted with the course content multiple times, reducing the need to “cram” everything into his or her brain the night before the exam. By doing so, students will learn to not just get by, but to thrive in their studies.