Jeremy Côté


When I sit down to take a final exam, I don’t think about how to make my answer as perfect as it could be. I don’t waste time making it as clear and concise as possible. After all, that’s not the goal I have when I write my exam. Instead, I’m looking to answer all the questions as best I can in the allotted time. If I finish early, then I’ll go back and look to make things nicer. The first priority is always getting to the answer, though.

I think this mindset can be defended, since a final exam requires a lot of effort all bunched up into a short amount of time. You’re not necessarily rushed for the entire duration, but you do have to remain focused. Therefore, I try to just get to the answers as quickly as possible.

This implies that I’m not thinking about my answers or the content of the questions too much. That’s fair. In other words, I’ve found that final exams tend to be a process of giving the teacher what they’re looking for. By the time you sit down for the final exam, you should have a rough idea of what kind of questions will be asked. In my experience, I often go on autopilot during final exams, since I recognize the patterns needed to solve problems.

If you’re someone that values deep learning over grades and memorization, you’re probably cringing from the previous sentence. Honestly, I do too. I wish I didn’t have to do that, but it’s the way one gets through exams. When you have three hours to answer a bunch of questions and you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on each one, there’s not much else you can do. I think it’s unfortunate, but I also won’t punish myself for having these standards. Instead, I make sure that I only employ this kind of work in exams.

Of course, regurgitating information is something that can happen all the time during the process of learning. I find myself thinking about this when using certain terminology in my classes. If I don’t have a clear conception of what these terms mean, I can get stuck with saying them because I know they mean something, yet I can’t explain them.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the terminology of a concept. Furthermore, it’s easy to let yourself just regurgitate information throughout your whole education, giving the teacher what they want to hear. The result is good grades, but another byproduct is little “real” learning. When all you do is mirror what the teacher says, how much do you really understand?

Think about your own education. Do you just focus on parroting back the information that was given to you? If so, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on what you’re getting out of your education. I don’t deny that it can be useful to employ this strategy in certain situations (such as exams where you need to answer a bunch of questions quickly), but please don’t let it take over your education. Frankly, it’s the lazy way out. While you may benefit in the short term, the long term rewards won’t be as great.

For myself, I keep this in mind with every assignment I do. I make sure to give my best effort on each one. Not because the assignments are worth a lot (they aren’t), but because they are where I get to really understand the concepts in a class. In order to let myself go on autopilot for a final exam, I make sure to spend a lot of time thinking about the assignments. This way, I get the results I want from my classes, while avoiding the temptation of regurgitating information without thinking about it further.

I know it’s difficult to apply yourself to every class as a student. Often, we have to juggle multiple classes, the associated homework, sometimes a job, and hopefully find some free time within that. As such, the temptation to regurgitate is high. For example, I know many students do their homework with a copy of the solutions beside them. While I think there’s a time and place for such resources, it isn’t during the time you do your homework. It’s just too easy to start looking at the solutions and filling in the blanks. This is another example of regurgitation, since you only care about finishing the assignment. If you get through a whole assignment without pausing to think at least once, I don’t think you’ve considered the nuances of the concepts as much as you could have.

The lesson here is simple: regurgitation is efficient, but it comes at a cost. There are benefits to being stuck on a question in an assignment. For one thing, you remember the experience more, which means you’re unlikely to be stuck in the same position again. Furthermore, you teach yourself that a bit of confusion isn’t detrimental to your problem-solving skills. You can work through them, and doing so gives you confidence for later on. If I immediately flipped to the back of the book each time I had difficulty, I might finish assignments quick, but I wouldn’t be able to do them on my own. Moreover, I wouldn’t build the habit of figuring out where I went wrong and how I can fix it. I think the latter is much more important than we give it credit for.

The result of regurgitation is a lot of short term gains, but few longer lasting ones.

And aren’t long term gains what we’re looking for in an education, in the end?