How One Test Changed My Life (and my Learning)
In the fall of 1980 I was a 20-year old Junior at a small Catholic University in San Antonio, Texas. Up to this point in my learning life I had yet to be really challenged in any particular subject ”“ my standard operating procedure for many years was to not really study anything until days (or even hours) before any test. While I had a natural ability to absorb knowledge and a fair amount of intellectual curiosity, I preferred Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Time to Applied Economics or English Literature.
A year before I had made the decision to get my major in Accounting; not so much because it was my dream ambition, but because it looked like the quickest way to a good paycheck. I had originally been “pre-law” when I first started college, but given my lack of challenge up to that point, the prospect of three additional years in school, and a need for an income, I quickly gravitated toward what I thought was a pretty easy ride to graduation.
Little did I know that there was going to be a very large (literal and physical) obstacle in my way to easy street, and his name was Brother George. Brother George taught the “core” course in the Accounting curriculum, “Intermediate Accounting”, and his reputation was one of those “chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out” professors, much like the image projected by the fictional Professor Kingsfield in the movie “The Paper Chase”.
Brother George was a big, rotund man, with big frame glasses and an intense stare. I distinctly remember my first day of class. He very methodically and calmly introduced the class and its importance to our degree and our future careers in accounting, and then added this kicker: he graded on a bell curve, so a certain percentage of us will fail the course. That got my attention. He also talked about his testing format, that was the most unique I had ever seen (before or since) – the questions are listed from hardest to easiest, and you were only graded on the questions you completed, BUT you had to do them in order. Any answers after a skipped question didn’t count. To top it off he graded the tests using some Byzantine formula that involved taking the square root of the raw score and multiplying it by some weird “factor”.
After listening to all this I got the first pangs of anxiety I’d ever experienced in a classroom, and that anxiety persisted through the first few weeks of class. Nevertheless I didn’t change my study habits all that much, preferring instead to join the campus drama club (I got lead role in the local production of “Carousel”) and host a few parties in my shared dorm room.
Then the Mid-Term exam approached ”“ Brother George kept ratcheting up the pressure by piling on more and more homework and “pop quizzes” (not to mention putting folks on the spot in the classroom, very Kingsfield-like), and topped it off by saying that this Mid-Term was going to be a rude awakening for a lot of people. The thing that struck me about all this was that this was the first class in my scholastic career where I was being treated as a responsible adult, and in a very “business-like” manner. This approach certainly was effective ”“ he never failed to get all of our rapt attention in class.
Needless to say my attitude about learning began to change from a casual pursuit to an intense need to survive that Mid-Term. It was all I could think about for the two weeks preceding the exam, and I frantically tried to catch up on my studying, losing a lot of sleep in the process (and starting my long association with the coffee bean). Fear of failure is wonderful motivator, and it was working wonders for me.
Finally, I got to the day before the exam feeling reasonably confident, and hoped to just put in a few hours of final preparation so I could get a good night’s sleep. Those hopes were dashed pretty quickly when I got stuck on several problems that I just KNEW Brother George would put right in front of the test (remember the hardest ones came first). So, I ended up doing the “all nighter”, watching my roommate sleep peacefully while I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out the debits and credits.
It’s said that sometimes the best epiphanies come in the wee hours, and in my case it was true. What happened in my room at 4AM went far beyond the content of the Mid-Term ”“ I was re-programming my brain to be more disciplined and focused. When I finally “got” the problems that had vexed me for so long that day, I also pledged that I would never again approach my class work (or anything else of importance to me, for that matter) in such a casual manner.
Fortunately, I was able to get an “A” on the Mid-Term. I fondly remember my audible sigh of relief when Brother George announced my score (yes, he made all the scores public too!). I had made it through the storm, and because of my newfound path for learning it was truly downhill from there. Even the CPA exam, which I later passed in 1982, didn’t seem as challenging.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Brother George, who passed away a few years back. Every year I contribute monies to my alma mater in his honor. He was the person responsible for laying the foundation for my lifetime of learning ”“ a focused process that continues to this day, 26 years later. To have a mentor like that at a crucial time in my life was a gift I will always cherish.
Starbucker (aka Terry), left the accounting profession in 1987 and is now an operations executive for a service company who lives in Connecticut and posts his musings and observations about "the optimistic side of the daily grind" in Ramblings from a Glass Half Full.