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.