Looking at reward systems: is the academic pressure a positive influence?

As we once again approach a busy period of exams and essays, I find myself reflecting upon the enormous pressure some of us put ourselves under to achieve academically. I think that I bought into this approach at school, and I have a suspicion as to why.

Secondary school can be a turbulent time for any teenager. Spots, relationships, and playground hierarchies are known to swarm the minds of some students. At least in my case, I know I hadn’t thought much else through by the time I strode into my school sports hall in order to recite parts of the Aeneid (yes, I studied Latin and went to private school – stop reading now if you are so inclined). I wonder now, however, if it was my trivial social confusions which allowed me to slide into the reward systems which I know characterised my secondary school experience: those of public exams and those of Fifa. I knew that if I put my head down and made revision cards while in every spare minute racked up the wins with Brighton Hove Albion in my Career Mode, I could succeed in both. And I did. Notable success included that special FA Cup run in my second season with the club.

So having established one reason of why we fall into them, we must ask whether there is anything inherently wrong with the reward systems which guided me to good grades and a decent control of a joystick? Well, kind of, if you are unaware of them. Once ingrained in you, a constant grind for the gratifying rewards you know you can achieve can detract from other important experience. Although I have enjoyed my time at uni so far and I wouldn’t change too much from my first year, the pressure I have put on myself academically is something that has perhaps hindered me from taking on some other creative pursuits.

The second problem is that you might start trying to succeed for other people. I know I certainly forgot about why I was working hard. It might start feeling like excellent results are expected from your friends and family and therefore you don’t want to disappoint. This is a recipe for undue stress. The solution, at least from my experience, is to study things you want to learn about, and don’t take it all too seriously – there’s plenty at uni to enjoy. And of course, work hard for yourself only.

I want to make clear that I believe there is value in hard work. Putting effort into something and seeing it pay off can be a worthwhile thing. At my school, even though glorified A*s were common place, and very much expected, it was good knowing that I could keep up and that I needn’t doubt myself academically. Anyone who has been in an underdog situation and comes out triumphant knows this feeling. It is one that builds resilience and confidence. In this sense the academic reward system is perfectly poised to build up important self-belief in individuals that were predicted a ‘C’ in their GCSE Geography Exam and return to Sixth Form with an A* under their belt. Indeed, reward systems can be important, but it is equally important to be aware of them, not let them consume your life, and use them to your advantage.

Mikey Kaye

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