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Failing calculus (twice) was the best thing that ever happened to me

We invited IB Diploma Programme (DP) graduates to reflect on their lives and studies. Learn more about the IB Alumni Network at ibo.org/alumni.

by Rachon Sweiss

In my first year as an undergraduate, I thought I was starting off easy. I took one humanities class and the first quarter of a two part calculus series – a relatively light load compared to every other quarter that would follow. The first lecture of my undergraduate career was for calculus, in a lecture hall that I now consider “off-limits” when signing up for classes, due to its steep incline and the fact that, in there, I failed my first calculus midterm. And the second one. And the final. I managed to not fail actually, but I did get a D-, which allowed me to go onto the next course of the sequence. And since, as they say, history repeats, I received the same outcome. Needless to say – I was baffled. Why was I failing calculus, yet excelling in my humanities class? At the time, I thought to myself, I guess I’m just not a “math person,” and moved on, the weight of the consecutive failures weighing on my confidence (and my GPA).

As I moved onto my second year as an undergraduate and started tutoring for the Humanities Core course, I found myself interacting with others who had the exact inverse of my experience – they were horrible at the humanities but great at calculus. Interestingly enough, as I began to assist people with essays and attempted to show them how to make connections and integrate the material, I began to realize why the difference was there.

One time, I was telling a fellow student I was tutoring that writing an essay is actually pretty formulaic once you get the hang of it. She looked up from her paper and said to me, “So, like calculus?” My first instinct was to deny a parallel between a subject I loved and one that seemed to dislike me as much as I disliked it. But, as she explained to me how she studied for calculus, I realized that I was approaching it in the entirely wrong way. I was approaching calculus the same way I approached any humanities class – even though I had trained extensively for understanding humanities, and nowhere near as much for calculus. Simply put, I didn’t understand that calculus – like skills such as critical reading – isn’t a subject to be learned, but rather a skill to be practiced.

Failing calculus wasn’t my first or last failure, and even though understanding why I failed came a little too late, the experience fundamentally shifted my mindset and approach to learning. It is important to not approach every class the same way, and be open to adapting your study habits and interaction with the material based on the expectations set. Being a student is a lot like trying to dance to a song that keeps changing rhythm – you have to step to a different beat sometimes, but a combination of discipline, passion, and practice allows you to turn a stressful mess into an elegant waltz.

Failure will haunt you in many forms – social, academic, personal – but should not be feared. Without reflection, failure is worthless. By getting into the habit of associating failing with reflecting, failure becomes less of a disaster but more of a learning opportunity, and an inflection point for personal growth. You can only learn what works by failing at doing what doesn’t.

Rachon received his IB Diploma from Granada Hills Charter High School in 2015. He is currently pursuing a BS/BA in Biology and Psychology at University of California, Irvine.

When he’s not in class or attempting to uncover conspiracy theories, you can find Rachon in a movie theater, at a bookstore or outside enjoying the weather in Southern California.

Have a great story to tell? Write to alumni.relations@ibo.org and learn more about the IB Alumni Network at ibo.org/alumni.