Surviving Finals Week: Redefining the Word "Smart"

If I asked you to think of one person in history that was “smart,” who would you think of? Maybe Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton…other scientists and physicists? Well if so, you are not alone. With a simple Google search of “smart people in history,” images of engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers and other stereotypically “smart” individuals filled the screen. Although this may not seem like a particularly sound scientific experiment, we don’t have to go much farther than a Google search to see the accumulation of our culture’s narrow definition of intelligence. Perhaps it’s these hundreds of years of reinforced expectancies of the “gifted” that cause us to develop test anxieties, disrupted sleeping patterns and/or poor eating habits around this time of year—finals season! 

However, new realizations in the academic community seem to suggest that the tests that we stress over so greatly every semester may not be indicators of our intelligence at all, let alone be preparing us for real-life success. There are many reasons to accept and have hope in our own talents when it comes to preparing for the future. So, if your heart drops at the thought of sitting in a lecture hall in a week or two surrounded by other sleep deprived, stressed out collegiates, struggling through multiple hour exams—relax. “Smart” is so much more than we’ve been led to believe, so here’s why redefining it in your own life will make this finals week, and every one thereafter, that much more bearable.


Dating all the way back to the early 1900s, there has been quite an uneven push toward the “scholastic intelligences.” Whether it be SAT, ACT, AP tests, or whatever entrance exams you’ve been required to take up to this point, you can probably vouch for that, and in college, the weight on exams gets that much heavier. In his book Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, Thomas R. Hoerr commented that “the idea that intelligence could be objectively measured and reported by a single score test…is nonsense.” He went on to explain how multiple choice, machine-graded exams are often inexpensive, convenient and reliable for the test distributors, although they are also consistently unreliable in the accuracy of their measurements. Even when I googled intelligent people, the first link listed intellectuals next to their respective I.Q. scores. 


 As people, we seem to be fixated on attaching some sort of rank to ourselves, something that makes it easier to place us into clean-cut little slots that determine the limits of our abilities. However, this system fails to acknowledge other less accepted types of intelligence such as the eight that Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of cognition at Harvard University, discussed in his multiple intelligences theory. This theory defined intelligence as “the ability to solve a problem or create a product that is valued in a culture” which can be broadly applied to a vast array of talents. Linguistic, musical, spatial and naturalist are just some of the fields of intelligence that he identified. These are often cast aside in schools/universities today in exchange for a focus on the more widely revered STEM fields, leaving some students to feel as if they offer nothing of value when they are often just unconventionally intelligent.

In addition to the degrading false labeling that our exams can place, they may have adverse effects on our psyche too. In an article for The Atlantic, esteemed senior editor James Hamblin offered the idea that “at whatever age smart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label.” This suggests that we don’t have to be struggling academically to struggle with the thought of finals week. I remember progressing through high school, terrified of the possibility of breaking my 4.0 GPA. What would my friends think? What would I think of myself? Sometimes we’re our harshest coaches and push for perfection always, but this can set us up for some pretty toxic situations when it comes to our intelligence.


Hamblin referenced the claim of mathematics education professor Jo Boaler, to illustrate another effect of this toxicity. She stated that “when people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves.” This labeling promotes a fixed mindset that failure is not an option, so therefore risks/challenges, often rich opportunities for learning, are avoided.  She went on to explain how in mathematics this fixed mindset often leads bright students to “hit a wall” in their math career, at the point where they can no longer progress smoothly. 


Instead of thinking of intelligence as an ongoing journey, we can be tricked into believing that it is a stagnant place, a rank that we can lose with the next bad test grade, a thought that drives many students away from the trial and error that true intellect demands.  However, those that choose to pursue a growth mindset believe that the harder they work, the smarter they become. No labels. No precious reputation to be lost. As this proves, sometimes the hardest times can be the times when we’re succeeding. Nonetheless, a growth mindset can keep us away from unhealthy stress, hitting “walls” that really only exist in our minds, and self-imposed finals phobia!


As finals approach, we can be tempted to hold ourselves to an unrealistically high bar that may not even cater to our personal intelligences. The next time your stomach drops walking into a test or looking at a huge grade, think of how much more we learn, how our ability to handle adversity is strengthened every time we are challenged. As this semester’s finals week approaches, prepare the best you can, but remember that only one of your many abilities is being assessed and that one ability certainly doesn’t define you. “Smart” is so much more than the famous theorists that pop up with a Google search; you too are worth it, and you too are able. As you write your name on those exams soon, have nothing but confidence in what you have to offer yourself, others, and your future because you know what “smart” really means.

Good luck, Hawkeyes!

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