I’m good with words…on paper anyway. So an undergrad (the first time around), I didn’t have a problem getting high grades because I had good research and writing skills.
Now as a dietetics student, in my first, basic level nutrition class, I can’t seem to get higher than a C on my exams, and yes, I study. This is a hard hit to my ego, I won’t lie, because I’m used to being “good at academics”. I was even a teacher, and I would consider myself quite competent in my field. Now, I’m not failing, but I’m also not excelling.
I still dream of being an “A student” again, but I am taking some important lessons from this experience.
Grades Don’t Define Your Worth
Cue imposter syndrome!
I am good at many things, test taking isn’t one. Especially when there is a lot of memorization involved. The class I’m taking now is one of those intensive summer classes where an entire semester’s worth of information is crammed into 4-5 weeks. Although I understand why universities offer classes in this kind of time frame, I think they are unnecessarily stressful on students and teachers.
Fortunately for me, this class has written assignments that I’m doing way better on because I have good writing skills; however, I have a tendency to fixate on the exam scores. “Why can’t I just be better?”
My grades don’t define my worth as a person. This is something I need to tell myself when I see a 72% or 74% pop up on my screen after a test.
Seeing your work quantified as a score can trigger imposter syndrome. You’re coming from a successful career into the classroom, and suddenly, you’re not the expert anymore.
Getting lower grades on quizzes or exams can make you feel like your score defines your worth as a person. This feeling can spill over into other aspects of your life, like your job, leave you questioning whether you are qualified and competent, or whether you’ve just been fooling yourself and others.
Feeling like an imposter can eat away at your self-confidence and undermine your success.
While I’m not thrilled that I got a C on an exam, twice, I am trying to make this a teachable moment. I need to recognize that not doing as well as I had hoped on my exams doesn’t mean I am incompetent or unskilled or whatever.
I’m not advocating that we do away with grades; I think they are important. Teachers give tests because it’s a way to assess progress. You can’t know what you don’t know unless you put to the test.
As a dietetics student, I should know concepts like diets high in saturated fats, trans fats and added sugar are going to lead to increased risk of chronic diseases. If I can’t answer that correctly on a test, I clearly need to study more.
But not having mastered a new subject when I’m constantly taking in new material doesn’t mean I’m stupid or incapable of being a dietitian. That 72 or 74% means that I need to do some more review.
And I do. I go back and look at my tests, I reread the chapter and I do flashcards. As long as I know the content by the time the class finishes, I think that’s success.
Having the desire to ensure that I master the material and taking steps to reach that goal says more about who I am as a person than the score I got on a test.
One of my all-time favorite professors from my first round of undergraduate studies was my Middle Eastern history professor told my class once that he failed his history classes in either high school or university. But he was one of the best professors I’ve ever had, and he clearly knew his history.
Being successful in school its a skill in its own, and there is more to it than just knowledge.
How you can handle this:
- Remind yourself that you are more than your performance on a test or in a class.
- Think of the areas of your life where you do excel.
Then do something intentionally that you’re good at. I like to write because I know I’m good at it. Seeing what I produced afterward gives me a confidence boost.
- Afterwards, go back and tackle that difficult content again.
You Might be Practicing Different Skills and It Takes Time to Adjust
My first bachelor’s degree was International Studies with minor in Middle Eastern Studies and my MA was in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Outside of the few Gen-ed classes I took, I barely interacted with math and science.
I never imagined I’d be in a hard-science discipline, and in fact, I never really thought I was good at science. But here I am! Studying science and asking myself, “what have I gotten myself into?”. I asked myself that a lot in my general chemistry classes.
My previous disciplines were more about identifying patterns and presenting information in a clear, coherent fashion. I did have to memorize some key dates and facts and then put it all together in an essay or research paper.
Eventually, science is kind of similar, once you have memorized the equivalent of 8 textbooks. At least that’s how it feels to me. There are so many numbers, formulas and concepts that all have one right answer.
There are a lot of other skills needed to succeed in a science-based course. For example, you need observation, classifying, quantifying, predicting and interpreting skills. As a non-traditional student, you probably have plenty of experience doing these in numerous settings.
But back in the classroom, we need to flex those math and memory skills! Hooray…or not.
Numbers have always stressed me out; just looking at a ton of them makes me feel like “oh I can’t do this.” I really had to train myself to stop thinking this when I took my first chemistry class in February because you don’t pass chem thinking you can’t do numbers and science.
You have to be understanding and patient with yourself when you start practicing new skills because you’re not used to doing them. It always takes time to get good at something brand new.
When you’re not used to doing math, it will take some time to adjust to doing this skill. Same as with memorization, you just need practice and repetition to get comfortable with doing this.
How you can handle this:
Set aside study time to practice these new skills and try to practice as often as possible. Even 5-10 mins makes a difference.
You May Need to Rethink Your Study Strategy
When you take on a new discipline that is the complete opposite of your current field, your study strategies might need to change.
As I mentioned in the previous section, there is no way around memorizing facts in dietetics.
Reading comprehension questions generally test for two things: comprehension of the gist, and ability find specific details.
From my experience, a lot of my exam’s multiple choice questions use both with a bit more of those specific detail questions. That means, when I take notes, or review material, I need to ensure I’m focusing on specific numbers and names.
I have never been a flashcard kind of person, but you better believe I’m using them now because it’s impossible to remember and keep a bunch of details straight without seeing them multiple times.
You might be in a similar boat.
How you can handle this:
- Make a note of what strategy you’re currently using.
- Identity exactly what you’re being tested on (general concepts, specific details)
- Find a new way to present yourself with this information regularly.
You can try flashcards (I use Quizlet), read your notes more often, record your notes and listen to them on your way to work, or make a “cheat-sheet” that you can refer to.
I have an entire page in my notes dedicated to molecular geometry for chemistry and the serving size equivalents for nutrition just to keep the numbers and foods straight. My next “cheat-sheet” clearly needs to be on the names associated with proteins and fats according to my latest exam.
SO MANY NAMES.
It’s not easy to accept that you’re performing less than ideally in your academics. This is especially true if you were a top student in your first degree and you’re good in your current field because it can trigger imposter syndrome. That opens a worm hole that you don’t want to get into. But! School success is not the definition of your life. You can bounce back from getting lower grades and once you graduate, no one is really going to care whether you got a C or an A if you can do your job competently. Do what you can to identify the best study practices for you and remember that you’re doing something new. Adjusting will take time.