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

Gracefully Honest

In this blog I will talk about honesty – something I think many well-intentioned people struggle with. This is because sometimes it seems like lying is the right thing to do – and in some rare cases, it is. To paraphrase Sam Harris, when Nazis came looking for Anne Frank and her family, anyone lying about them not being hidden in the building was certainly doing the right thing.

That said, in all but the most extreme cases, people choose dishonesty for misguided reasons. This happens because sometimes the truth hurts. In fact, sometimes, truth is used as a weapon.

The confusion is, in part, because while honesty can be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it always is. Honesty must be wielded virtuously, which is not automatic. In fact on its own, honesty is not a virtue.

Honesty is not a virtue

In classical antiquity, there are the four cardinal virtues. In brief, here they are (these definitions are mine – for more formal details, check this link):

  • Prudence: The ability to judge the appropriateness of a possible course of action.
  • Courage: The strength to act in the presence of fear.
  • Temperance: The exercise of restraint in feeding an appetite.
  • Justice: The purest form of fairness, in a righteous sense.

So honesty is not a cardinal virtue. Now over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have added more virtues to the cardinal four. Of these there are three that I think are moral necessities. These are “love”, “charity” and “kindness”.

Still, on it’s own, honesty is not there. This is because honesty can be used morally (specifically in the context of love, charity and kindness), but it can also inflict pain – intentionally or not. Let’s have a look at that second situation first – the “brutal” honesty.

Brutal honesty

“I am going to be brutally honest with you.”

How many times have you encountered that sentiment? How many times have you said it? Let’s stop to consider what it prefaces: that the person is about to lay some bit of perspective on you that they know is going to hurt.

This is usually justified by the idea that you are deluded somehow, and need to “snap” out of it. Or you need a “hard” dose of reality. Or any other number of violent paradigm shifts the perpetrator feels they are uniquely prepared to impose. Because, after all, the world is full of people willing to coddle you, creating the need for someone righteous enough to tell you the truth, even though it will hurt.

This is bullshit.

This “brutal” honesty is really an attempted behaviour modification through punishment. The shock it is expected to impose is designed to somehow shine light on a deficiency in perception, so that you cease your persistence in pursuing some vision. A vision which, according to the person with the flashlight, is a fantasy. It tends to come from a place of anger and – make no mistake – is meant to make you suffer for whatever pain your apparent delusion has been causing them.

People who use this phrase like to project pride in their willingness to use it. You may hear them boast such claims as “Hey, I call it like I see it”, or “I’m a straight-shooter”. It comes with admonishments like “The truth hurts”, or “If you want to hear the truth then you don’t want to be around me”. They may be offering honest assessments, but they are nested in dishonest motivation, even though the motivation is sitting right there in the phrase. Brutal is not a nice word.

Definition of brutal
“Brutal.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brutal. Accessed Mar. 2017.

Check out that definition. There is nothing in there that speaks to any kind of morality or good intention, and certainly nothing virtuous. Even the entry about brutal truth contains no compassion. Accurate? Yes. But unpleasantly and incisively so.

So then someone who prefaces the delivery of truth with “I am going to be brutally honest” is – by their own admission – embarking on a non-virtuous wielding of honesty as a weapon to deliver misery. I propose that in the vast majority of situations, the fundamental reason for this is that even though they are using the word, they are not being honest about their own motivation – the desire to be brutal.

But I don’t want to be brutal!

It’s okay – I know. This notion of brutal honesty leads to a concern from good people who don’t want to be brutal. There is a perception that if the truth is brutal, or perhaps unsavoury, then a lie would be better. Keep in mind though that lies come with a heightened anxiety of their being discovered. This often leads to uncomfortable situations, where additional and more elaborate lies are needed to maintain the facade of truth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to be honest and virtuous. I call it “graceful honesty”.

Honesty with grace

First, let’s have a look at the definition of grace, so that you can understand why I chose that word. Grace has many meanings, so I have highlighted the ones I am applying in this context:

Definition of grace
“Grace.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace. Accessed Mar. 2017.

Recall earlier, when I spoke about the three virtues of “love”, “charity” and “kindness”. In many ways, the word grace encapsulates these, and so I choose it to describe the type of honesty I mean.

First, be honest with yourself

Graceful honesty isn’t difficult, but it does require some practice if you are not in the habit. The key to it is when you find yourself either tempted to be dishonest, or about to be brutally honest, you stop and spend some time being honest with yourself first. If your motivations are virtuous, then there will be a way to communicate honestly with grace. Conversely, if your intentions are nefarious, then hopefully you will be honest with yourself about that and choose some other course, having recognized the toxicity of your initial instinct. The key then, is to use self-reflection to uncover and put words to your motivation. I don’t want to use too many specific examples here, because it is easy to make arguments about the inaccuracy of an example as it applies to yourself, and then decide the concept is flawed, but I’ll indulge in one in the hope that it will be a good springboard.

Dinner at Kelly’s

Suppose you have been invited to dinner at your friend Kelly’s house, and you just don’t feel like going. The likelihood is that if you decide not to go, you will fabricate an excuse. Further, the excuse probably has a half-life greater than a few hours. What I mean by that is that it’s probably a concocted scenario that will likely be referred to at a later date. For example, you may claim “my kid is sick”, which you can bet Kelly will ask about in the next day or two, and may even ask your child. In this case you will have to remember the excuse so that you don’t accidentally contradict it later, and you may even have to recruit your family to perpetuate the dishonesty – something they are more likely to forget about, since they are not vested in the lie. Result? Anxiety.

Instead, consider this. You really do value your friendship with Kelly. You also don’t feel like going. Before choosing to be dishonest, you can spend some time in honest self-reflection. Why don’t you want to go? Be super analytical about that. You may discover that you actually do want to go, or you will confirm that you don’t. If you truthfully don’t want to go, you will now be better able to put into words what the real reason is, which will of necessity consist of the factors that are outweighing your legitimate desire to spend time with Kelly.

If you tell Kelly exactly that reason, and if Kelly is a good human, she will understand, because you have been fully honest and presented the reason in full context of how you struggled with the decision. She will appreciate the conflict, and understand the conclusion, even if she is disappointed.

But wait you say! I know Kelly! She would never understand! She would just be insulted! Well, I’m not foolish. I know this is also a possibility. But here’s the thing: this is only the current state of your relationship because of a history of implicit dishonesty about motivation. Which means there is room for more honesty – on her part and on yours. See, if at the core you both value each other and the friendship, then you mean no insult, and so how can she be insulted? And the core is all that actually matters – because it is impossible that either of you wants the other to be upset. That core exists, and honesty will land you there. Graceful honesty.

Graceful honesty doesn’t mean everyone is happy

In the example above, Kelly is probably going to be disappointed. You might also. That may seem contrary to virtue, but it isn’t. Not if you were honest about the factors that outweighed your desire to go. Disappointment isn’t a monster to be avoided at all costs. It’s a natural consequence of not being able to implement more than one choice at a time.

One of the great contributors to dishonesty is a desire to keep everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But it’s a trap. Lying by definition creates a false narrative. Perpetuating this to maintain a state of happiness, in fact maintains a state of delusion. One from which the participants (barring tragedy) must eventually emerge, and who’s discovery is unlikely to legitimize the illusion of peace they were enjoying. Put simply, the lie just sets everyone up for a bigger fall.

But life isn’t about being happy all the time! We all know this. We all experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment. For the most part we don’t let these things impact the zoomed-out graph of our lives. Yet we find ourselves willing to skirt honesty with others to somehow shield them from these normal experiences.

Have you ever said something to someone in anger that you later regret? I’m betting you have. I’m betting some if it was pretty damn poisonous, and required a lot of apology, replete with the sentiment “I didn’t mean it”. But is that really true? More specifically, does “I didn’t mean it” mean the same thing as “it wasn’t true”?

My experience tells me that what we are really trying to say is “I regret using honesty to hurt you – it isn’t consistent with how I feel about you.” This can be about something you’ve been holding in for a while, or it can be about an emotion that was real in that moment, instigated by the anger. For example, “I hate you!” during an argument isn’t totally untrue, just imprecise: it really means “I hate this feeling I’m having right now that you are causing”, and it is 100% true. It is also 100% forgivable, because it is 100% understandable.

If you think about this for a while, you will see that the real mistake is not being honest earlier, when graceful honesty would have worked: “I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul, but I do get irritated when you don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. I do not equate this behaviour with you, and my irritation is therefore not aimed at you, but the behaviour.”

That last quote is wordy and annoying, I know. But it’s the idea I am trying to communicate, not a recipe for how to tell your husband to put the damn cap on the toothpaste. Very often we don’t disclose little irritants like that because we are concerned it will be taken as criticism of a loved one we don’t want to hurt, as opposed to observation of a behaviour that is independent of the reasons we care about the person exhibiting it. Graceful honesty would disclose all of that, and keep the barbs from growing onto a club that could be wielded in anger.

See, hiding the truth is silly. We are all in this reality together. We should share it. All of it.

Honesty is the sharing of reality.

Think about it. How can honesty be anything else? But as I said earlier, to do it with grace requires a deeper searching of our own motives than we normally do. So the next time you feel like a lie is warranted (or if you are tempted to inflict pain with truth), ask yourself why. What is motivating you? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to help? When you feel the truth needs to be hidden, put away the issue whose truth is troubling you for a moment and look at the feeling itself – it will be the source of the honesty you should embrace. The reality you should share. It is the only way to build and maintain relationships that have value.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich