Improving Academic Performance

Simple Academic Strategies: Part One

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Nov 20, 2014 @ 10:22 AM

academic strategies

Acting strategically is a key to success in education, business, and, really life in general.

Before starting MyGuru I was a business strategy consultant, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the process of developing strategies. 

For a business, a typical strategy development process consists of something like:

  1. Agree on a specific goal, for example, to double profit
  2. Gather a bunch of facts on your company, your competitors, your markets, and your customers
  3. Summarize your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, etc.
  4. Create some alternative courses of action which take all of the above into consideration
  5. Evaluate those courses of action using agreed upon criteria, such as: what would it cost, how risky is it, how long would it take, etc.
  6. Choose the best alternative course of action
  7. Develop a specific plan with a timeline and clear understanding of who’s accountable for performing each item in the plan

Students, like businesses, need to employ strategies to be successful. 

It may seem obvious, but if you don’t set specific goals, understand exactly what is required to reach them, and develop clear plans for what you will and will not do to achieve the goal, you’ll be much less successful than people that do these things.  Setting goals, researching what is required to reach those goals, and developing specific plans that lay out what you will or will not do, is the essence of developing a strategy.      

As we’ve discussed before on this blog in articles on the growth mindset and on deliberate practice, research shows that successful people aren’t smarter, or even harder workers.  They tend to focus on the ability to improve (growth mindset), which makes them grittier, and when they practice, they do so deliberately.  However, what they also tend to do is think more strategically about what they’re doing and how it will help them accomplish their goals.  

Let’s look at what this could mean for a typical college student on two different levels: #1 choosing your classes and #2 performing well in any given class. In this post, we’ll focus on choosing classes. In our next post, we’ll dive into acting strategically within the context of doing well in a specific class.

#1 Choosing What Classes to Take

Many high school and college students pick classes based on the requirements of their current major, even though they may not be 100% sure they really want to major in that area. They assume they have to choose a path, and then follow it. The decision to change paths later, which perhaps they could see coming had they really laid out their options, comes with a lot of stress and inefficiencies (i.e., another semester or year in college, etc.). They probably also tend to care a little too much about things like timing of the classes, how interesting the class seems to them, and what they’ve heard about it from friends. These seem like natural, and common, criteria.  But, they aren’t that strategic or fact-based.

A more strategic approach might be to recognize that you have a few goals you’re trying to meet when choosing classes: meeting the requirements of your major, meeting the requirements of another major you might decide to pursue, communicating that you have certain skills to potential future employers so you are an attractive candidate, and perhaps getting exposed to new ideas across multiple disciplines (after all, you only go to college once), as well as graduating in four years.  And, perhaps timing of the classes, general interest, and recommendations also play a role.   If you know you need to meet the requirements for your major, but also aren’t sure if you’re even going to keep your current major, then that presents an additional, special challenge.

As you lay out your class options, you may notice, having thought fully about the goals you have in mind when choosing classes, that there are some classes which meet many of these goals: they fulfill requirements for multiple majors that interest you, they seem interesting, they make your resume more interesting to future employers, the timing isn’t too bad, etc.  The way to notice this is to, like a business might, layout your goals, and perhaps prioritize them.  Then, gather all the relevant facts.  In this case, the facts that most students sometimes don’t gather are hidden in the course descriptions and literature about major requirements. By digging into these documents, you often find courses that fulfill requirements across multiple majors. You could imagine that a classed called “The Economic Role of Individual Governments in the European Union” might meet a requirement for a major or minor in History, Political Science, and Economics. But, you won’t know this without dong some research and gathering facts.

Some simple online research about what types of classes impress certain types of employers is another area in which to gather some facts. If you have a hunch you might be interested in a career in consulting or finance, taking some math or statistics classes, at the margin, will demonstrate analytical ability. If you are considering a career in Marketing, psychology classes will demonstrate an interest in an area of knowledge that’s highly relevant for that career.

Of course, there will always be tradeoffs. You could image there being a class which seems like a perfect fit for several majors, actually seems interesting to you, and is taught be a well-like professor. But, it’s only available at 8AM on Fridays. All things considered, you might want to take that class.

Ultimately, you can just write down on a piece of paper a long list of potential classes, and then across the top of the piece of paper, write out a list of goals you’re trying to accomplish.  If the class helps meet that goal, give it a check. To be able to do this, you will need to gather and reflect on the right facts.

By simply thinking strategically about your goals and all of the reasons you might choose one set of classes over another, you can create options for yourself around choosing a different major in the future without needing to stay in school an extra year, or perhaps even earning an extra minor or major degree, while also positioning yourself to look good in front of future employers with specific class experiences that they value.

 

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