You’re Not Dumb; It’s Just Hard

It’s Friday afternoon. The week is finally ending, and you’ve braved your way through the 5-day storm of a midterm, two papers, three quizzes, and roughly 600,000 hours of lectures that you may or may not have attended. You’re ready for the night of hard-partying (or Netflix-watching) that will ensue.

Just as you’re putting away your non-programmable calculator and your notebook, there it is – the notification. Midterm grades have been released. You could have done worse, but you were expecting to do better. Your night is effectively ruined.

Many of us sit in our classes thinking longingly about when adding and subtracting fractions was our hardest mathematical task, and when a one-page essay was the large, looming project at the end of the year. We may scoff at our younger siblings when they complain about their “overwhelming workload,” contemplating the comparative ease of their high school assignments and examinations.

“I was just being stupid,” I say as I receive feedback for the midterm with the overwhelmingly low class average. “I should have known the answers, but I made dumb mistakes.” We, as students, tend to place a considerable amount of blame on our self-perceived lack of intelligence when we don’t meet our academic goals. In the wake of endless major academic assessments, and particularly in the library around finals period, the general sense of frustration and exasperation is palpable. The student beside you may even be in tears.

“It’s too hard,” they might say. “I can’t do it. I feel dumb.”

The truth is, school is hard, and it likely isn’t getting any easier.

Critiquing and challenging yourself is important. Maybe you could have done better on that midterm if you’d studied a bit more, and checking over your answers on the next quiz would probably be helpful. Pushing yourself to do your best work is crucial for your acquisition of new knowledge, abilities, and confidence.

Having said that, challenging yourself loses its value when a goal not met is followed by such a deep feeling of inadequacy. Solving for “x” seemed like an impossible feat at first, and even summarizing a simple article was, at one point, an arduous task. Success was not inherent then either, but your perseverance allowed you to continue to learn and progress.

Challenging yourself loses its value when a goal not met is followed by such a deep feeling of inadequacy.

This isn’t to say that any lack of academic success is inherently due to the difficulty of the system, or our university, or our professors. It is, however, perhaps time for the collective student body to view our personal academic endeavours in a different light. Our capacity to absorb and interpret new information is remarkable, but our ability to regurgitate a particular subset of material is what gets tested. Not every grade below your average should be treated as a total intellectual defeat.

You made it this far, and you’re still going. You’re not dumb.

Every day, you are fed new information by experts in their fields, and while this information is likely logical to them, to you it might be difficult and bewildering. But here’s the thing: when your history professor first explored the causes of World War I in excruciating detail in their undergraduate degree, they likely had difficulty understanding them too. Their now-fundamental knowledge was not innate. Thirty years ago, they may have exuded the same frustration and exasperation from their corner of the overcrowded library.

As we emerge from the period of final projects, papers, and exams, I’m hoping that we, the collective student body, can begin to eliminate this epidemic of illusory inferiority, and modify our criteria for self-assessed intelligence. When we were younger, teachers might have recognized our wit, and likely praised our individual abilities to absorb new information and think critically. Despite the limited positive reinforcement provided in this high-stress environment of academic excellence, let’s try to maintain the mindsets of the smart kids that we used to be sure we were. The sheer quantity of new information we are regularly processing is exceptional, and in the future, some of this information may even seem as logical or obvious to us as it is to our professors.

Not every grade below your average should be treated as a total intellectual defeat.

The value of your insight and intuition has not depreciated, and nor should your sense of intellectual self-worth. School isn’t easy, and your perceived failures should not undermine your extensive successes, including the continuous academic challenges that your intelligence has allowed you to surmount.

You are smart; school just isn’t easy.

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