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

Interesting Times

There is a saying that goes “May you live in interesting times” and depending on who you ask it is meant either as a blessing or as a curse. I have always considered it a blessing. After all, who wants to be bored? It is also “interesting” that although the saying has often been attributed to Chinese culture, there appears to be no solid evidence of this.[1]

The application to today’s situation – and the parallels of attribution – are worth noting for a moment, though not dwelling on. That COVID-19 originated in China seems to be effectively certain. That it has anything to do with Chinese culture is not (in a country with almost 1.4 billion people how can we designate any one practice as national culture?) That it has thrust us into interesting times is clear. How we behave is going to be something we learn from and talk about for the rest of our lives. I like breaking down my own experience into two categories: Fear and Opportunity. I’ll talk about both.

The fear. Well this is an obvious one, right? I am afraid the virus will overload our health care system. I am afraid of getting the virus. I am afraid that my loved ones will get the virus. I am afraid that myself or someone I love will need hospital care for some other reason and not be able to get it. This is first and foremost. Like almost everyone reading this, I have loved ones who are vulnerable. I cherish them. I want to protect them. But even for my loved ones who are not vulnerable, I don’t want them to get sick. The threat of COVID-19 is something we can’t see, and it travels on our network – the very network we turn to for much of what we consider a happy existence. Humans are a social species. We rely on our pack to survive and thrive. And the virus uses that exact connection to spread. So, we are in a time where we must go against our culture and our very human instincts and disrupt the network. This naturally creates more fear. We are programmed to find safety and security in our social connections, and these are the very connections we must sever in order to break up the network. There is no human alive who has lived through a time like quite this, though there are certainly those who have lived through arguably worse. In modern memory though, this kind of reaction to pandemic exists only in history books and in movies. So, it’s scary for sure. But the fear also creates the opportunity.

If forced to select a time in my life where this was going to happen, well this is the time I would select. There is no human alive who has lived through a time like this – a time where connectivity is so easily established without physical presence, where we have successfully created a new network on which a biological virus can not travel. A time where respect and understanding has been pushing itself more and more to the forefront of our considerations in how to deal with each other. A time where mental health issues like anxiety and depression have become something we are no longer expected to conceal and endure in isolation, but rather to share and explore so that we can help each other grow and be better. And while much has been discussed about the dangers of this non-physical connectivity, we are now faced with the opportunity to show how we can overcome those dangers and use it for immeasurable good.

We are feeling isolated – we can connect. We are feeling anxious – we can share. We have been feeling exploited and tainted by social media – we can exploit it right back and use it in ways we always wanted to but instead allowed it to deteriorate into a morass of rage and AI marketing.

Most importantly, we can connect with those who we are still face-to-face with. Our families.

As a teacher, my plan is to use what I know and what I am learning about connectivity to continue this year’s delivery of curriculum. It won’t feel exactly like being in class. I have done some experimenting already and I can tell you this – while inferior in ways, it is also superior in other ways, and we will allow ourselves to see it, to embrace it, and to grow. Patience is key, but so is enthusiasm. And I am happy to tell you that swirling around with the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that I’m having about this pandemic and the measures we are taking, is a maelstrom of enthusiasm that is unyielding. We’ll make it work.

As a human, my plan is to continue to exercise proper caution, in the hopes that months from now there will be a whole slew of people who will be able to criticize what we have been doing as overreaction, using evidence of a less severe outcome to back their claims. I will wait as we all settle into this temporary new normal, and as our politicians perhaps speed up the recognition and acknowledgment of what experts have been saying since the outbreak started. We will have food. We will have our prescriptions. And with care and some healthy paranoia, we will have access to health care when and if we need it. None of us signed up for this, but we can handle it. Humans have weathered worse, under much less optimal conditions!


[1] From Wikipedia, citing Garson O-Toole: “Despite being so common in English as to be known as the “Chinese curse”, the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. The most likely connection to Chinese culture may be deduced from analysis of the late-19th-century speeches of Joseph Chamberlain, probably erroneously transmitted and revised through his son Austen Chamberlain.”