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On Failing A Test

I failed my first Nervous Systems exam.

There. I said it. I’d say there’s no shame in saying it, but oh there’s so much shame in saying it. I’ve never flat out failed a test before, and it pains me to say that I’m a Neuroscience major. I mean, if it were a class I was taking that wasn’t related at all to my course of study, I’d probably just drop the class. But this is Nervous Systems – this is the class of the major, the one class everyone freaks out about and the one everyone studies so extremely hard for. I have to take this class if I want to be a Neuroscience major, and there’s no way around that.

I studied hard for the test. I kept up with my readings, I went to every class, and I studied a considerable amount for the days leading up to the exam. I never wanted to fail (of course, no one does), but yet I did. Maybe I’m not time managing well, or maybe it’s because I’m living in a totally new environment. Maybe it’s all these excuses I’ve come up with in my head, and maybe the reality of it is just that I could’ve studied a lot smarter instead.

Nervous Systems is an amazing class, and no one will contest that. It’s taught by two wonderful professors, Dr. Haiqing Zhao and Dr. Stewart Hendry who pour their heart out into the material they teach. The class is taught in the traditional lecture-style, but the both of them discuss the course material in a very personable and appealing way. It’s an honor being able to learn from such intelligent and humble people.

Zhao and Hendry try their best to let us succeed. The class is very transparent and organized extremely well, and they provide more than enough resources to help us learn the material.

That’s part of why I’m so ashamed and disappointed in myself. I’m in a neuroscience class at Hopkins, where everyone around me is excited and willing to learn material from two of the best professors I’ve ever had, but I still failed the first exam. After I got my grade back, in the midst of being in disbelief, Dr. Hendry sent out an e-mail that really stuck with me:

“Here is a story, a composite in which 4 former Neuro majors are used as exemplars for many others.  Each of these four is currently a medical student earning both an MD and a PhD at one of the best med schools on the planet.  All of you would recognize the names of the med schools and all of you would be ever so happy to trade places with these four.  What they have in common is this: each of them failed the first exam in Nervous System I and all of them went on to earn A’s for this semester and A+’s for the next.  One student stands out because after failing the first Nervous System exam, she missed a total of 5 points for the rest of the year – both NS1 and NS2 combined.  And here is my point: lots of folks go into the first exam without much feel for how well Dr. Zhao and I expect you to understand the material. Now you do appreciate how well we expect you to understand it and I am sure all of you have a much better sense of what it means to really understand it.  If you have any doubts, look at the annotated key and pay particular attention to the answer to question 4. And then appreciate you would need to rent out Shriver Hall to hold all the people who have done poorly on the first exam in Nervous System I and then have gone on to earn A’s in this course and in the one that follows.  If you are disappointed in your score, let me encourage you to fix whatever let you down for this exam, and be another of those who recovered beautifully, so that I can talk about you next year to the next group.”

I’m not used to failing, and I never want to be. I’m not going to say that I’m okay that I completely screwed up the first test, but I’m going to come to terms with it because it’s already happened.

What’s left for me to do is to reset my study habits from the past couple weeks and to start anew. There’s a need for me to not only prove that I can do this to myself, but also to my peers, parents, and teachers too. I want to be able to succeed in an environment like Hopkins, because doing so really means that I’ve learned the material concretely and well. It means I know how to learn, to problem solve, and most importantly to grow.

Here’s to admitting my faults and learning from them. My next Nervous Systems exam is in a week, and I’m going to do everything I can to ace it.

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