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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Thoughts on Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award

For the Cambridge International AS and A Level, there are Outstanding Cambridge Learner Awards which are awarded by Cambridge to students who achieved top in the world or top in each country for each subject. Students with the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award will receive a special certificate through a ceremony that is held by their school or college. Many schools or colleges and even Cambridge often publicly announce about the students who get the award.

As you probably have expected, quite a significant percentage of AS and A Level students aim for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award. In order to be top in the world or top in their country, they have to work very hard to score as high as possible in the assessments, hoping to be better than all other students. However, this was not the case for me. I never aimed for the award when I was studying A Level. In my opinion, no student should aim for the award. Here, I want to jot down some of my thoughts on the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award so that you may better understand why aiming for the award is a very bad idea. Let me explain.

First, success isn't defined by getting the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award.

The definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim. Our main aim of studying A Level is so that we can get into the university and degree course of our choice. In order to achieve that, our A Level grades just need to meet the entry requirements. So technically, meeting the entry requirements is already considered success. Of course, getting just the minimum grades required won't make us feel very good, so we probably want more than that. It is definitely good for us to aim for reasonably better grades than the minimum required.

But whatever our aim is, it should all be about our own performance and not about performing better than other people. It is what we ourselves do that determines success, not what others do. If we aim for Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award, we will need every other student to perform less well than us in order to achieve the aim. Whether or not we get the award is determined by other students' performance which we have no control on, so it is wrong to define success as getting the award. Also, by defining the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award as success we are essentially saying that almost all students taking A Level will be failure no matter what, since only the top student can get the award even if every one aims for it. This is definitely not right.

Second, Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award doesn't mean better student in university.

The study style in university is quite different from that of A Level. Unlike in A Level, lecturers in university may not teach us everything that we need to know so we may have to do our own readings. We also have to use several different reference books in university because there is not a single book that can be used throughout the entire course. There are also assignments which involve doing research, unlike A Level which is fully examination based. It is important for us to be able to adapt to the university study style as soon as possible after starting university.

The Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award only indicates that the recipients have excellent knowledge in the particular subject, but not anything else. There are some students with the award who end up failing in university, because of their inability to adapt to the study style despite having a lot of knowledge. On the other hand, many students who never obtained the award are able to adapt well and pass their course in university. Also, the award indicates nothing about the students' aptitude or attitude, which are very important. Therefore, getting the award or not does not determine whether one will be a good student in university.

Third, aiming for Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award causes negative attitudes.

We should always be willing to share our knowledge with our friends. This is part of team working which is especially important when we study in university. When we share our knowledge, apart from our friends benefiting from the additional knowledge they gain, we too benefit because we often understand something better when we explain it to and discuss it with others. Indirectly, the society will benefit as well because there will be more people with more knowledge to contribute to the society in the future.

Unfortunately, when we aim for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award, we become less willing to share our knowledge with others. Since the award requires us to be in the top of all students, we have to make sure that we are better than others. We are worried that if we share our knowledge, others may become better than us causing us to not get the award. This kind of attitude is known as 'kiasu', a term which originates from a Chinese word that means 'scared of losing'. 'Kiasu' is a very negative attitude associated with selfishness, we definitely should not have this attitude. In contrast, the world would be a better place if every one is willing to share knowledge with others.

Fourth, aiming for Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award makes life harder for other students.

The grade thresholds for each subject in Cambridge International AS and A Level is not fixed, it changes from one session to another. Cambridge determines the grade thresholds based on the difficulty of the questions and the performance of students in the examination. The grade threshold will be set higher if the questions are easier or if the students performed better. Every student must get a score higher than or equal to the threshold for a particular grade in order to get that grade. Ideally, the threshold should be around 80% for grade A* and 70% for grade A.

However, for certain subjects particularly Mathematics and Further Mathematics, the grade thresholds are usually very high, sometimes exceeding 93% for grade A*. One of the reasons this happens is because of the students who aim for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award for these subjects. To get the award, they try to score as high as possible in the examination. Due to their high scores, the grade thresholds are being shifted higher. Because of the high thresholds, some students fail to get the grade required by their university and have to either give up on their aim or resit the A Level. To prevent excessively high grade thresholds, we should not aim for the award.

Fifth, aiming for Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award brings unnecessary stress.

Studying A Level can be quite stressful for some students. Sometimes, even if we are just aiming for the minimum grades required by our university, we still feel stressed because we are worried that we can't even achieve that. When we are very stressed, we probably won't find A Level as interesting as it actually is. Too much stress can also negatively affect our health and social life. So, we should always try to relieve our stress. Apart from studying, we should have reasonable amounts of free time for leisure activities such as video games, sports, movies, hanging out with friends etc. This is a very good way of relieving stress.

If we are aiming for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award, since we need to be better than all other students, we can never be certain whether or not we can achieve our aim until the results is released. We may have revised very long hours daily, but there may still be someone better than us. The uncertainty will increase our stress. In addition, after revising long hours every day, we will only have little time left for leisure activities. The lack of leisure activities will definitely make our stress worse. Why should we let ourselves face additional stress when we could have avoided it simply by not aiming for the award?

Sixth, there is no good reason to aim for Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award.

There are a few common reasons given by students on why they aim for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award, but I think none of them are good reasons. Some students aim for the award because they want to be more famous, since the public will know if they get the award. I have to say, we study A Level because we want to get into the university and degree course of our choice, not because of fame. If we are looking to be famous, then we probably shouldn't be studying A Level.

There are also students who think that getting the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award will improve their chances when applying to universities. This is not true. Universities assess the applicants' academic abilities only based on the A Level grades. Some universities also require applicants to attend an interview, write a personal statement or take an admissions test to further assess their suitability on the course. Getting the award or not will have no effect on the application.


As you can see, aiming for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award has many negative effects and it gives no advantage at all. This is why I never aimed for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award and why I think nobody should aim for the award. Since its existence does nobody any good, I believe that Cambridge should abolish the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award completely. If you have not been aiming for the award, that's great and hope you don't change. If you have been aiming for it, I hope you will reconsider that aim after reading this.

Of course, even if nobody aims for the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award, it will still be awarded to the top student in the world and in each country, unless it is abolished. In the case where we are awarded Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award without aiming for it, this doesn't matter actually. As long as we don't aim for the award, there won't be any negative effects. Lastly, let me share a quote from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group:
"I told my son: You don't need to be in the top 3 in your class. Being in the middle in fine, as long as your grades aren't too bad. Only this kind of person has enough free time to learn other skills."

I would like to apologise if you feel offended by this article. I do not intend to offend any one, I just want to give my opinion about the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award.

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  1. If you opined that the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award should be abolished, I'm sure you would agree on the removal of A+ and A* by the MOE for SPM and Cambridge for A Levels? The so-called 'negative' effects you proclaimed can still happen in other cases with the existence of the higher grading system like A* and A+. If that's the case, then I presume the Nobel Prize should be abolished too? I am definitely not offended by your opinion. It's just that I find it rather ironic at some point, that if you actually receive this award, would you still have the same opinion as mentioned in this post? Thank you.

    1. It is not right to compare the award with A+/A*, because they are completely different things. A+/A* is given to students who reach a certain level of excellence. It is all about a student's own performance, all students can achieve that if they work for it. On the other hand, the award is only given to students who scored higher than everyone else. It is about comparing with others, only students with the highest marks can get it even if all students work for it. The 'comparing' bit is what makes the award morally wrong.

      Even if I actually received the award, I will still have the exact same opinion. And if I can give up my award in exchange for CIE abolishing the award completely, I will definitely choose to do so. As for the Nobel Prize, I don't know how it is awarded, so I don't want to comment about it.

    2. Hi may I know what is the border mark that I should at least get to get an A* for chemistry in As Level provided I can work really hard in A level? Can u give me a rough figure like maybe around 120/140 or??