Want Good Grades? Then Forget About Getting Good Grades!

Ok, I admit it. I have a habit of creating titles that create a disconnect. And are a little click-baity. But to be honest it only happens because I often like to write about misconceptions, and so by definition the title will appear counter-intuitive. Today I am going to write about something that over the course of my teaching career has met with perhaps the most resistance from students and parents, but which has also met with the most success when embraced.

If you want good grades, stop trying to get good grades.

Scandalous, I know. And trust me, I have heard all the rejoinders. So as you can imagine, I will explain.

See, in the current system of education, grades stopped being a measure of progress some time ago. What they have become instead is currency. A commodity that is pursued, traded and leveraged with as much vigor and ferocity as the dollar, euro, or yen. And I am not using hyperbole here. Schools these days have come to be viewed by many students, parents and even teachers as a marketplace. Teachers have the grades, students want them. And in this marketplace the end goal is to get as high a grade as possible. To very many – but to be completely fair, not to all – how that happens is not nearly as important as that it happens. To this category of student, the goal of school is not to learn, but to get grades. And this paradigm shift causes a fundamental change in how the entire process is viewed. I will list just a few examples:

  • Bargaining
    It has become standard operation procedure now that when teachers return graded work, the immediate next phase is the negotiation. Students dissatisfied with the magnitude of their grade will question, cajole and even harass the teacher about the grade, with the common theme that since the student believes the grade should be higher, the teacher has assigned a wrong grade. There are even times when the guise of reason is dropped completely, and the student will actually say things like “I need a 97% to get into <insert elite university program here> so can you raise my mark?”
  • Academic Dishonesty
    Academic dishonesty (aka cheating) is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the pervasiveness of it, and the total lack of ethical struggle involved in making the decision to use it as a tool for getting high grades. After all, if the only purpose of school is to get a high grade, and if cheating accomplishes that, then where is the ethical problem? And so we see rampant use of things like plagiarism, paying others to do work that students then submit as their own, or gaming the system so that assessments like tests are skipped, then done at a later date after getting information from other students who were present at the time about what was asked.
  • Grade Mills
    Countless “schools” have popped up over the last decade or so who’s sole purpose is to guarantee official credits and high grades. The thinly disguised mission of these schools is to create a means by which, for a price, students can get a credit on their high school transcripts and also get an absurdly high grade. What separates a grade mill from a more legitimate private school is how accurately the student’s grade reflects their knowledge on completion of a course. I have taught many students who received a grade mill credit in a prerequisite course for the one I am teaching, with a grade of 100%, who do not possess the most basic skills meant to be learned in that prerequisite course.
  • Cramming
    This is definitely not a new concept in academics, but it has spread to more and more students, who in fact no longer recognize that it is not actually a means of learning. In courses where there are scheduled tests/exams, students to little to no work during times where there is no assessment looming. They attend class, possibly take notes, and otherwise devote minimal attention to the lessons, because “this won’t matter until the test.” They do not see this as an ineffective strategy at all. The belief that drives this is that the only time the subject knowledge will matter is when they are tested on it (and thus in a position to get grades), and so the plan is to study as much as possible the day – or even the night – before a test. Cramming all the information into their short-term memories just long enough to unleash it onto their test papers, to be promptly forgotten as they leave the room after writing the test.

These are not the only examples of what I am talking about, but they are the most common. And it is clear that none of these appear to give actual learning more than the slightest courtesy of a head nod. They are completely and totally about getting grades.

Sometimes, they even work. But that’s a trap. Because even when they work, they are only short-term solutions to a lifelong endeavour, and they all create stress and anxiety in the process.

  • Bargaining for grades, when it works, teaches that it is not about what you earn, but about what you can badger people into giving you. It shifts the perspective about where the effort should be placed. Rather than placing effort on producing good work, the effort is placed on convincing the teacher to assign a high grade. This creates an internal tension that results in generalized anxiety, because the student ends up in a position of having to convince the teacher of something that is not actually true, and for which there is no evidence.
  • Cheating works for its intended purpose (when you don’t get caught), but like grade mills, perpetuates the “appearance over substance” philosophy, and also imbues dangerous long-term values that erode at the ethical fabric of society. The stress this creates is clear – fear of getting caught, and the consequences. Additionally there is the gradual accumulation of anxiety brought on by creating an academic avatar that is more and more fraudulent and removed from the person who wears it.
  • Grade mills teach that appearance matters much more than substance – if you can appear to be someone who earned a perfect grade in calculus, it does not matter if you actually are someone with a deep understanding of calculus. It is hard to even wrap ones head around how many ways this is wrong. First, the injustice of potentially securing a spot in a college or university over someone who earned a lower grade, but actually knows much more calculus. Then, the fact that with the label of “100% in calculus” anyone who checks that label will assume that you are a calculus genius and expect that you are, creating significant stress on the person masquerading as the calculus prodigy. Finally, the pressure that the very existence of grade mills places on legitimate schools, who have little choice but to begin awarding higher grades so that their students can remain competitive when it comes to post-secondary offers of education, which is a non-trivial contributor to grade-inflation. The stress created here is very similar to that created by cheating, and has the added anxiety-producing bonus that at some point there won’t be a grade mill offering credits and grades for money, and that the student will actually have to perform as the person their grades have indicated that they are.
  • Cramming is arguable the lowest offense on this list, because in its purest form the student is not misrepresenting themselves at all. However it is fraught with disadvantages, from the fact that many students struggle to absorb and then reproduce the knowledge in a meaningful way, to the fact that when needed later – in the same course or in a subsequent one, the knowledge is no longer accessible. It also creates a great deal of stress and is a common cause of test-anxiety, which is a very real issue for many students who find they “totally knew this last night” but can not recall it when test time comes.

Perhaps most tragically, this issue causes stress and anxiety not just for the students engaged in them but for the many students who are not, because it creates an unlevel playing field that places incredible burden on the ones who are doing things the right way. Grade inflation is a real and dangerous phenomenon, where just like monetary inflation, a loaf of bread is still a loaf of bread whether the price tag says $0.75 or $2.99. The difference is that because we use percentages as grades, there is a ceiling, and so we are staring to distinguish by decimals. And that means that for any student mistakes cost much more than they ever did in the past.

Ok. So I’ve devoted the article to this point (approximately 5 minutes of reading time, if the algorithm that tells me how much I have written so far is to be trusted) outlining the issue. And maybe I’ve made it seem like hope is lost, because we do in fact live in a system where grades matter for universities, colleges, academic awards, and sometimes for that first job, and all of these vehicles by which students are getting the grades are either unethical or riddled with stress and anxiety. But hope exists! Because there is very good news.

To get good grades, all you have to do is actually learn the material!

Revolutionary, I know. It almost seems like I am joking. I assure you I am not. This simple fact is lost on more students and parents than I wish was the case. Clearly it would work though, right? Of course it would. Students, you can take all the effort you are devoting to “getting grades” and shift it to “learning material”. Immerse yourself in class. Ask questions of the teacher. Engage in discussion. Pay attention. Do work in increments (that is, homework), instead of cramming the night before a test or exam. Decide that you will be a master of the topic and use your teacher as the resource they are. Develop a love of learning – trust me, this is not as hard as you think – and as you grow into this person who legitimately strives to learn, the grades will automatically follow, as an afterthought!

Now I know from experience that this message lands differently on everyone. Some people roll their eyes, either inwardly or outwardly, and decide that the game as it is being played works just fine for them. Others hear me and know it makes sense, but feel that it’s too hard, and getting grades some other way will be the way to go. But, there is a significant portion of students I have talked to who have taken the idea to heart. And without fail they are the most academically successful, as reflected both in their grades, and in their facility with the material they have learned. These students inevitably report back to me that once they stopped their pursuit of high grades, and shifted their energy to the learning, they began earning higher grades than they ever had before. And their confidence grew as their anxiety atrophied. Because so much of the mentality of getting grades involves somehow gaming the system into awarding false credit, that when they shift into the person who actually has earned the credit they are receiving, they feel bulletproof.

And what a great feeling that is!

Thanks for reading,
Rich

Heroes

Lately I have been thinking a lot about my heroes. In order to help clarify my thoughts, I thought a blog post might be useful. I’ll start with some clarification about the way I am applying the word “hero”, because I think it can have many meanings.

For me, a person who rushes into a burning building to save a baby is heroic, and I stand in awe of that kind of bravery, but I am not talking about that kind of hero. Then there are the people we see repeatedly doing amazing things in some specific context. For example Michael Jordan often did heroic things on the basketball court, most notably for me was game 5 of the 1997 finals when Jordan, sick with either flu or food-poisoning, still managed to lead the Bulls to victory. But I’m not talking about that kind of heroism.

What I am talking about is when I encounter someone who has amplified some trait or combination of traits I sense in myself, and that I would like to amplify as well. I could probably use the term “role model” here more aptly, but I also find that this term is not as charged with the energy I am trying to convey. The word hero works better.

When I was younger I didn’t realize this – I thought my heroes were demonstrating something I didn’t have, and that drew me to them. As I got older I started to discover that in reality what was happening was they were showing the trees that my seeds could grow into. They were showing that it works, and that it can stand you well. They were showing me that I was right to want to nurture those aspects of my character. So who are my heroes? It’s an interesting list. In many cases there is overlap, but not all. And sometimes the heroism is derived from a very narrow slice of what is undoubtedly a complicated synthesis of things I either don’t know about, or else don’t value in this sense. So I guess my list is kind of like a Frankensteinian conglomeration of pieces, each amplified, that make up the parts of me I like the best, and want to amplify.

Maybe one day I will write out the list, and do my best to identify how each person comes to be there. But today I want to talk about one hero specifically. Because she left us today, and I am feeling the loss intensely. And she is a most unlikely hero.

I’m talking about my dog, Tryxi.

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We said goodbye to her this morning. It was hell. The whole family was there, along with our wonderful vet, who loved Tryxi almost as much as we did. There’s no surprise here for any dog owner. Dog owners all understand how much we love them. And any dog owner who has lost a pet knows there are no words for the pain of that day and that moment. But she was suffering terribly, poor girl. Cancer was eating away at her from the inside out and she had lost her muscle mass, her appetite, and much of her enthusiasm. Although she was happy about people right until the last moment. She loved her people.

So let me tell you why Tryxi was my hero.

Tryxi spent most of her days in my wife’s home office, guarding my wife and the house from her doggy bed. When the four of us (my wife, myself and our two kids) would gather in the kitchen or family room for family time Tryxi always made sure she was there too, the proximity being important to her and to us. Whenever my daughter was sad, she would hug Tryxi and it would be better. Ever since my heart attack about 3.5 years ago I have had bouts of anxiety that cruelly give me chest pain. Hugging Tryxi took the pain away.

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Tryxi never tried to make anyone feel better, or better about themselves. It just happened because she accepted everything as true. If she sensed sadness she never tried to tell the person to make the sad go away. She just absorbed it. When she sensed happiness she ran with it. Tryxi never lied – to herself or to anyone. If she found something to be irritating she said so (as experienced often by our other, younger dog, Moose the pug). When she was in pain Tryxi never thought about whether it was fair or not. She never felt sorry for herself. She also never congratulated herself for anything.

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Tryxi was naturally strong. She destroyed many a Kong in her time – even the “Extreme Kong”, designed for the toughest chewers, was no match for her and lasted less than 20 minutes. Her thighs rippled with muscle even when she wasn’t moving. And yet Tryxi never, ever, used her strength to hurt anyone or anything. She would use it readily to establish her presence, or to solve a problem, but never in aggression. Tryxi knew exactly who she was without anyone having to tell her, and certainly without having to have conversations with herself about it. If she liked something she loved it. If she didn’t like something she ignored it. Her default position was love and calm. Anything that happened that took her away from that place was always viewed as a temporary distraction, and she would deal with it then patiently wait the return to baseline. Without judgement or remorse. Even as she was deteriorating, her attitude stayed like that. She was waiting for her peace.

This morning she found it. She knew it was coming and she wasn’t afraid. It was what she was waiting for.

Tryxi has been my hero for years. I am changed because of her – because she showed me that I could amplify those traits that I saw in myself. I do my best to calmly accept the moment. To live now. To enjoy the love that is always there. To bring peace to others. To not judge. To not waste energy fretting over what is “fair” and instead to use my energy to live fully.

She was a good girl. She is my hero.

Thanks for reading,

Rich