With the second round of midterms coming into full swing, I think it’s productive that we stop and do some reflecting on our academic lives. No negative energy here — I know this is Hopkins and this may be difficult for us — but no staunch criticisms, no trash talking our snakey classmates, no self-loathing, no jokes (jokes?) about dropping out of school and joining the circus becoming a traveling ukulele player — just personal reflection.
If there’s anything that a large majority of Hopkins students can agree on, it’s that midterm season is undeniably difficult. I know I said no negativity, but this is not negativity, it is a fact — midterm season can really suck. But as I reflect on my experiences with exams, for me at least, one of the worst parts of exams is after the exam — the unveiling of the class score distribution. The mean. The median. And the worst: the histogram.
Let me correct myself — the unveiling of the class statistics is either the worst part or the best part, depending on where on the histogram you fall. I, for one, have been all over that histogram, and while I have had my fair share of victories, I know what a terrible feeling it is to be able to literally count on my fingers the number of people who scored lower than you on the exam, especially when you know that you really did try your hardest. Do I really belong at this school? My classmates were able to do well, so why couldn’t I?
Another frustrating scenario — I am happy with my score, until I see the class distribution, and realize that I did “bad.” For an engineering major who has taken a fair number of humanities classes, I can tell you that this isn’t as much of an issue in humanities classes (or at least the ones that I’ve taken) that primarily rely on writing papers instead of exams. I spend hours writing my paper for my American Revolution class, I turn it in, I get my grade, and I try to better myself on the next paper, maybe even schedule a meeting with the TA or professor asking what exactly I should work on. There’s no “I-don’t-know-how-I-did-until-I-see-the-average” or “what-letter-grade-are-you-curving-to” nonsense; I focus on my own performance, not anything else.
I wouldn’t say that these humanities classes are any less challenging (just in case you didn’t already know — “all humanities majors are easy” is easily debunked). But I’ve felt that these classes feel like less of a competition between me and my peers, which can feel like such a breath of fresh air in such an academically stressful and competitive environment.
I don’t blame the professors for this; I understand why many STEM classes need to release these post-exam distributions — it is in our best interest that these classes are graded on a curve to adjust for the difficulty of the material, and in order for you to see how well you’re performing, you need to be able to see how you did in comparison to your classmates. But that doesn’t mean looking at these distributions doesn’t come with negatives like increased competitiveness between classmates as well as feelings of inadequacy for students who didn’t perform as well compared to others.
I realize competition is a part of life. Often times, it is a good thing to be competitive because it pushes you to work harder. But I think getting too wrapped up in the academic performance competition at Hopkins is a whole different animal; it’s a recipe for unhealthy stress, anxiety and for some, mental illness. Again, I’m not calling for the “banning of the histogram” or uncurved STEM classes, because I know this is unfeasible, but I do have some advice for those who have, at some point or another, felt completely and utterly “stupid” after seeing where they fell on the score distribution.
Please realize that, while competition is undeniably a part of the real world, we shouldn’t get too caught up in competition here because Hopkins is not the real world. The real world doesn’t revolve around exam scores or GPAs. And it most certainly does not have such a high concentration of high IQ-ed people dead set on getting into top medical schools, top PhD programs or tech companies.
Look at the bigger picture. Yes, you scored a standard deviation below the average on the thermo exam, and I know that feeling is horrible because I’ve been there too. But really, what percentage of this country, or even this world has the academic background to even take an upper level thermodynamics exam at the university level? You’re not stupid. Far from it. I know it’s hard and much easier said than done, but the best thing to do if you find yourself on the lower end of the distribution is to realize that you’re not a failure, and to work hard for your own personal improvement next time. Comparing yourself to others is just unfair to yourself and your hard work.
It’s unfortunate that the structure of many STEM classes perpetrate competition against your peers, but aim to compete against yourself. Remember that 20 years from now, your life won’t revolve around exams/grades/GPA. Smile. Do your best. Work hard (but not too hard) and have faith that your future will be okay in the end. At the end of the day, what else can we do?