Stress Tests: Looking Beyond Exams

  Jade leads a professional development seminar

It’s that time again: midterm exams at An-Najah University. Many of TYO’s STEP! volunteers are current students, and in recent days the dark circles under their eyes have not gone unnoticed. Balancing university and volunteer commitments can be challenging, especially with a university culture that values high exam marks over everything. Many students in Palestine are painfully aware of the emphasis placed on their test scores before they ever enter university; the university application process does not consider extracurricular activities or outside talents. In the last year of high school, the Tawjihe exam determines a students’ fate, and this exam-heavy academic culture continues throughout their university years.

Each Sunday and Thursday Claire and I facilitate discussion in a Leadership Development course at An Najah National University with topics covering everything from communication and teamwork to interview preparedness. During these sessions, we have the opportunity to engage with university students on issues that are important to them, and the challenges they face in preparing for life after they earn their degree. Time and time again, students have voiced the competitive nature of the exams in university and the anxiety caused by these tests. Because the pressure surrounding these tests is so high, they must dedicate as much time as possible to ensuring that they can get the right answers, impeding on time and incentive to engage in activities and opportunities beyond the university classroom. This fosters a university culture that does little to support activities through which students can gain significant experience and benefit including volunteer programs, internships, and clubs or organizations.

In a discussion I had with a university student last week she stated, “The exams cater to only the highest-ranking students. Everyone studies so hard simply to compete, but almost everyone is very qualified and does well on the exam. Some of the marks just come down to chance – and yet we do not know how to apply this knowledge outside of the classroom.”

TYO’s STEP! volunteers are challenged to take their knowledge and apply it outside of the box through direct engagement with the local community, developing practical skills that increase their professional capacities, and understanding how they can make an impact in Palestine. Their talents, real-world experience, and hard work could not possibly be captured by black-and-white exam marks. Sometimes referred to as the “tyranny of the quantifiable,” because numbers lend themselves to ranking students. Qualitative aspects of student ability like charisma, experience, ingenuity, and work ethic cannot be captured in such a way, and there are currently few means of capturing these very important factors through graded assessments. Human capital is more than just an exam mark, and the successes of volunteers display the efficacy of programs that take students out of the classroom to develop the professional skills that they will need to be successful.

While exams are necessary for measuring student retention and understanding of course material, they are not the end-all-be-all indicators of student ability. To meet the challenges and demands of the modern world, students must have access to programs that bring their lessons to life – through volunteering, internships, or practicums that apply their learning in a tangible setting. A recent study has revealed that an increasing amount of employers find new graduates to be unready for an ever-changing job market, citing lack of leadership, critical thinking, and organization as issues that bar students from being truly ready to enter their career fields In the modern day, one must have more than just a degree to be competitive in the job market. By fostering a university culture that encourages community and career engagement outside of the classroom, we can expose students to real-world problems in their fields of choice and instill them with the confidence to tackle these issues head-on.

In Khalil Gibran’s famous book The Prophet, he states, “A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” We must encourage university students to look beyond their exams and conceptualize ways in which they may activate their learning in their society. Through this mindset, we will see the fruits of their academic labors in the productivity and successes of their work.

-Jade is a Fall 2014 International Intern at TYO

This program is funded by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation (AHSF).