Something to Remember

Note: see below for opportunities to learn more about Waterloo

It is final exam week in my home: the week before Christmas break when every student is preparing to cram a semester’s worth of material into their heads long enough to reproduce it on a two-hour test, and repeat again the next day. Why do we do final exams? As a teacher for eleven years, my thought was ‘This is a good review, another way to solidify the information to memory, and this is exactly what I had to do as a student so let’s keep the tradition going.’ But, is this a good thing? Yes, repetition leads to learning. But are finals a healthy way to do ‘repetition’?

At the end of every semester, I watched high school students come in for finals: the confident student, because this is a review of learning their favorite subject; the stressed out student because the two tests they didn’t do well on will be on the final and they never mastered the material; and the disengaged student just pushing through exam week because they did the math and their exam grade isn’t going to change their semester grade too much. Finals week was a ritual for tired, anxious, and finally relieved students.

As my daughter was preparing for her second day of finals she said what every teacher has heard from their students, “I don’t think I’ll remember much of this after the break.” While testing is a standard part of schooling, she knows that she’s literally cramming information to get through the test to move on to the next, and she knows she doesn’t learn as well that way. Then she said something wonderful: “You know, the thing I really remember was the project I did this year, because I had to present it for a competition. I understood what I was doing.” Understanding. If the goal of school is to prepare for work, learning, and civic engagement, understanding is essential. When we do something, we come to understand it.

At Waterloo, each trimester, students will learn in order to do something— to create and present something of value to the community. At this time of year, instead of cramming for five or six exams (called ‘massed’ learning), they will be refining their two projects and their presentations for you, parents and public, to come experience. The project will be teacher-led, student-designed, and specific for the course. The student will have drawn in other related subjects to enrich their project and connect their learning, toward earning credit in those subjects as well. The exhibition will be a community event, a time to celebrate, explore, and discover what our students have to offer, because they understand knowledge and ideas so well they made something with them. To be sure, there will be some stress and anxiety involved in preparation—but it will be a different kind, and one that will prepare students for the experiences of adulthood.

As I reflect on my own education, I wasn’t defined or shaped by the information I had to produce for a final. Instead, I treasure the influential relationships I had with my teachers, the projects and experiments I did, and the presentations I made—I actually remember those in great detail. We are created to learn in relationships, through experience, and in order to do things. While you can gain a wealth of information from a lecture, book, or podcast, it is hard to keep it in memory unless you practice and engage with the information in meaningful ways. Waterloo makes learning real: something to remember and something to feed into your spiritual development. After all, we are shaped by what we understand and what we experience.

During the Christmas season our family goes ice skating at Whole Foods in downtown Austin. I remember the first time my daughter put on her size 2 skates. After a quick lesson on how to skate, she was ready to go, but not on her own yet. I held her hands while we traveled in circles around the ice rink. I think we had a couple falls, but got back up again and enjoyed the day. Seven years later she’s putting on her size 7 skates and my hands are not needed, she’s all good on her own and can probably teach little brother how to skate. Learning to understand does require practice with purpose. It’s a healthy struggle that makes the result both rewarding and memorable.

As you enter Christmas, may the practices and traditions of celebrating Christ’s birth enrich the goodness of family and friends.

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Christina Swan