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Non vitae, sed scholae discimus!

“Phew!” René murmured to his bench neighbor Barbara when the geography teacher sent him back to the rows of benches after the exam. “At least it’s positive,” he thought, although at best it earned him a C on his report card. His mother would be pleased, since he had performed only just adequately in the “learning subjects.” Since exams were usually announced well in advance, or at least it was foreseeable when it would be his turn again, René was used to studying only at short notice. Almost all exams went like this: Cram the material shortly before the exam – just barely pass the exam – forget the material.
As a result of this “learning pattern”, René had only a rough memory of what he had learned in history, geography or biology in most subjects at the end of the school year. When he stood in front of a plant during the vacations, at best he could only remember that he had accurately identified its leaves and had even known the Latin name once. When he heard the name of a small African country on the news, he just knew that the name had come up in class at some point.
Why is it that René takes so little away from school for “everyday” life? It sometimes annoyed him that the “learning” in these subjects was so little lasting, but after all, it had still somehow worked out in the exams and that was probably the most important thing, wasn’t it?

René’s problem is also known to adults who, after their school days, are annoyed why most of what they learned in class did not remain in their memory in the long term. This is primarily due to the fact that every learning process consists of three steps: the preparation and acquisition of knowledge, the application of knowledge and the follow-up. After all, the learning process does not end with the completion of an exam. When the feeling of “I will never need all this again” arises, the foundation is laid for the learned material to quickly “dissolve” in the convolutions of the brain.
As far as some specific learning content is concerned, this may be true even in the ideal case, but one can learn some things about the correctness of one’s own learning from the exam experience, the success or failure on the exam – in René’s case, the grade or feedback from the teacher. After the exam, René should ask himself the following questions:
– Did I get the gist out of the subject matter, or were completely different things important to the teacher?
– Did the teacher ask the expected questions, or did he ask about connections that you hadn’t even thought of when learning?
– What can I take away from this for a next exam? Should I perhaps take an oral exam next time, since I had problems formulating the answers?
– Did I perhaps miss less the learned content but more the general basics – e.g. in subjects with building content like mathematics or languages? Maybe I should brush up on those basics before the next time I learn.
– How did the teacher ask the questions? Were bulleted lists and facts important, or general understanding and connections? Maybe I should take notes on the teacher’s questions when examining other students – see Learning Tip “Get to Know Your Teacher”.
– Did the teacher give you enough time or was he impatient because you took so long to say something? Perhaps it is more beneficial to first briefly repeat the question to give you more time to think.
– What would I like to know or be able to do later from what I have learned?
– What should I do differently or better on the next exam? Should I perhaps write out the material instead of just reading or marking it (“How do reading professionals read?” Learning School Issue 12)?
You should ask yourself these and similar questions after each exam, think through the process again, and record everything in writing if possible – in a study journal, for example. If you then consciously address your own “weaknesses” before an exam and do something better, you will also benefit from an exam that you would prefer to forget.


Translated, this Latin saying means, “We learn not for life but for school!” This saying by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (educator and advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero) is usually quoted in reverse and therefore incorrectly.