A Culture of Learning on Campus, Not Testing

One of the many reasons students choose to pursue a postsecondary education is the opportunity to grow and develop intellectually. University is seen as a place to be challenged and to learn. However, many students find themselves not actually learning what they came here to study for more than the days leading up to a test or exam. 

I believe there lacks a culture of learning to learn on campuses across the province. Instead, the emphasis is on learning for a grade. Take a walk through campus on any of the days before exams start, and you’ll find libraries full of students cramming a semester’s worth of content and trying to memorize as many parts of the textbook as possible. Test preparation centres get plenty of business with the promise of preparing students well enough for subject-specific exams to get the grade that they want. While these techniques are enough for students to learn in order to do well on the exam, that knowledge stays in the exam room when students walk out the door.

With pressure for higher and higher GPAs from graduate programs and professional schools, and exams accounting for the vast majority of grades, students are feeling the increased necessity to do well on exams at all costs, including at the expense of their actual learning.

As a student in the Accelerated Route to Medical School program at Queen’s University (QuARMS), I am one of the lucky few to be able to focus on learning to grow as a person and less on learning for an exam. QuARMS is a two-year program consisting of ten students that culminates in matriculation to medical school also at Queen’s. We take five courses per semester, the equivalent of a full course load, in the Faculty of Arts and Science, along with a sixth course available only to the ten of us, named the QuARMS module. Like most medical schools in North America, the QuARMS module is pass/fail. The School of Medicine’s expectation of us isn’t that we perform the highest possible in our courses, but is much more interested in our growth as a human being and learning for the long-term.

For the first time, I feel like I can learn the content for the purpose of increasing my own knowledge and not in order to get a certain grade in the courses that I’m taking. Everyone acknowledges that mistakes are part of the learning process, but the traditional system penalizes students for doing what is only human nature. In a 2011 study published in the Medical Education journal, researchers examined the impact of a pass/fail medical school grading system on academic achievement and student well-being. What they found was that such a grading system enhanced student well-being while having no impact on academic outcome. In student performance on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), students at a pass/fail medical school did just as well as those at a traditional letter grading institution, putting to rest the fears that a pass/fail grading system would decrease student motivation to learn.

We want our future doctors to be able to remember the information that they learn, be able to apply it to their future patients, and not simply perform well on a final exam. The emphasis on learning instead of testing should be similarly applied to other undergraduate programs. The fostering of a learning environment on campus is not necessarily done through the pass/fail system that has been adopted in medical education. Efforts should be made to explore the possibilities that will enhance student learning with a decreased focus on exam performance. Instead of rewarding the students who were able to memorize the electron geometry of molecules for the duration of a chemistry exam, we should encourage students to delve into these topics without fear of making mistakes, all for the goal of creating lifelong learners, not one-time test takers.