I often struggle with craving academic validation. While I have grown up with parents who are supportive and have never pressured me to achieve the highest marks in my class, only encouraged me to do my best, I still grew up with the idea of having to ‘do well’ and achieve top marks.
I am not the only one. Why is it that we attach so much of our self worth to the grades that we get, as if they are a defining factor of who we are? While my parents are supportive, other family members have always placed a lot of value in being awarded ‘good grades’, constantly talking about how well other children did, often accompanied with disparaging or pitying comments if their marks didn’t reach their standards.
We are socialised in school by our teachers, our peers, and our parents to believe that we will not be successful in life if we do not achieve high marks and do well academically. Despite there being a myriad of opportunities to succeed in life regardless of what grades you received in high school, we still continue to place such a high emphasis on the marks that we get. Different paths in life are also seen as successful according to the person viewing them. And as we have learned what is considered important in school by those around us, we have clung to those ideals, desperate to live up to them.
Another factor that affects this is the process of labelling. Labelling refers to the way in which teachers classify and stereotype students, which can then affect the self-perceptions that students have of themselves. Students labelled as ‘smart’ or ‘naturally clever’ from early on in their schooling career often find themselves struggling to live up to that title later on in their education when the work becomes more difficult. They rarely built up revision and learning tools due to ‘learning coming easy’ to them in earlier grades. This can leave students with less motivation to work hard but still holding onto the need for academic validation which can often leave them disappointed when they do not always obtain the marks they desire. Students on the other end of the spectrum are also affected when they are labelled as ‘lazy’ or ‘disruptive’ as they often want validation from their peers. However, they can sometimes overcome the limits of these imposed expectations and surpass them.
There are also different types of intelligence and methods that students learn. Often exams will only test one kind of intelligence and method of retaining knowledge which leaves students who are better in other areas at a disadvantage.
Our need for academic validation - and our often human desire to be best - we leave ourselves feeling exhausted, drained, and anxious. It is important to remind ourselves in those times that academic achievements are not going to count for everything in the greater sphere of things. While it can be important for universities and places of employment when they look at applications and resumes, it is also not the only thing that they look at. They also value other skills that can be carried and utilised in every aspect of life.
I think it is vital that we don’t lose ourselves in an effort to gain academic validation and instead find a place of moderation where we have a balance of being satisfied with where we are academically and are also able to enjoy our lives without the fear of not being successful looming over us. We need to hold space and remember to be gentle with ourselves instead of berating ourselves when we don’t constantly live up to expectations.
Ask yourself this: Can you redefine what a successful and joyful life looks like for you individually? Can you then live up to that aspiration for yourself rather than others’ expectations of what you should be doing? What’s important is that our new definition of success does not involve seeking validation from others. Determining success that is dependent on the external validation will leave us stuck in the same place we were trying to avoid initially.
We do not have to be defined by our academic ability, we will always be so much more than that.
Padfield, Pauline (1997), ‘“Skivers”, “Saddos” and “Swots”: Pupils Perceptions of the Process of Labelling Those “in Trouble” At School’, Scottish Educational Research Annual Conference paper.
Brimi, Hunter (2005) ‘The Influence of Cultural Capital on Twenty-First Century School Literature Curricula’, Electronic Journal of Sociology. http://directory.umm.ac.id/articles/brimi_cultural_capital.pdf
About the author:
I’m Tessa Schroenn, a 17-year-old girl from South Africa who has a passion for travelling and exploring the world, loves a good laugh, and can’t wait to curl up with a book and a blanket, especially on rainy days!