Improving Academic Performance

A Strategic Approach to Earning Higher Grades

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Tue, Dec 27, 2016 @ 10:00 AM

In a recent Linkedin article, I wrote about how we tend to underappreciate the importance of strategy relative to hard work or intelligence in understanding why some people succeed and others fail in any given professional, academic, or personal endeavor. I also suggested that my experience as a business strategy consultant has helped me realize that there are powerful principles of strategy development used by businesses that students could borrow to improve their academic performance. The idea that you can perform well in school by

In that article, I introduced three particularly important elements of business strategy development.

  1. The strategy development process – or, the process companies use to come up with ideas for what to do or not to do to beat the competition.
  2. The concept of market attractiveness vs. competitive position, which explains whether a company is likely to succeed (or fail) because it operates in a good market (or a bad one), is doing something better than its direct competitors, or some combination
  3. The notion of key success factors vs. core competencies, which helps explains why a company is positioned well in any given market (or not)

In this article, I’ll explore point 1 above, how an understanding of the strategy development process could help students improve their performance in any given class.

What is a typical strategy development process, and how can it be applied to situations faced by students?

Let’s start by exploring a typical business strategy development process. It consists of the following steps:

  1. Establish a goal.
    • A typical corporate goal is to “double the value of the stock price in five years”
  2. Develop a fact-base of critical information and insights.
    • In business strategy, this is typically a financial analysis of which products, regions, and customers generate most of your profits, a discussion of the size and growth of your key markets, and an assessment of how you compare to key competitors
  3. Identify key issues and opportunities associated with reaching your goal
    • In business strategy, this could be a wide range of things, from “we are losing money in this market” to “this competitor is rapidly stealing our market share”
  4. Define and evaluate alternative courses of action
    • This is a big one. Many companies come up with ideas to solve problems, and they either decide to take action or not. Instead, at least three different and reasonable “strategies” for reaching your goals should be developed.
    • Businesses evaluate alternatives against criteria like the risk of the alternatives, how much they’d have to invest, the time it will take, etc.
  5. Develop a plan for implementing the best alternative
    • Once a business knows what strategy it’s going to follow, it creates a specific plan of attack for what it will do and who is accountable for each action.

How can this be helpful to a student? Envision a student sitting in his first AP history class of the year. He is given a syllabus, and told what books to read. The typical approach is to do the homework that is assigned, show up to class, and work hard. How could one apply a strategic planning process to that class to increase the chances of getting an A?

Set a goal for your performance in the class. Decide you want to get an A. Tell someone your goal is to get an A.

First, it’s critically important to set a specific goal. Business know that if you don’t set a specific, measurable goal that everyone understands and feels accountable for, you aren’t going to achieve that goal. Research done by Heidi Grant Halvorson, a professor at Harvard, suggests that setting specific goals is one of the most important things that separates more successful from less successful people.

So it’s simple. If your goal is to receive an “A” in the class, that means you need to be getting ‘As’ on all homework, quizzes, and tests. It creates an entire mindset around how you’ll perform and what you’ll do that just doesn’t exist if you say “I want to do my best in the class.” Don’t try your best. Decide you are shooting for an A..

Develop a fact-base of critical information. How is the teacher going to run the class?

Of course, “developing a fact-base” in the context of developing a strategy for a company vs. in the context of developing a strategy for getting an ‘A’ in an AP History class are going to be two very different things. When I say “critical information” in the context of AP history, I don’t mean facts and theories about events and people in history. That’s the content of the class, and that’s not the critical information I’m talking about.

In my experience, most students just “go with the flow” as it relates to understanding how their grade in the class will be determined. Most will probably read the syllabus to understand whether homework is graded, whether attendance matters, how many tests there are, etc. After that, they focus on the next day’s homework. But if you pay closer attention to how the teacher is designing the class, you can discover a bunch of super helpful information that can be useful to you as you decide how to approach the class.

For example:

  • What percentage of your grade is determined by attendance, participation, homework, projects, quizzes, tests, midterms, and the final exam?
  • Are you supposed to or allowed to work with classmates on homework?
  • Do quizzes cover materials discussion class, from the book, or both?
  • Can you share and discuss drafts of essays with the teacher in advance and get feedback?
  • Does or she have office hours?
  • Are the classes/lectures the focus of what is tested, or does assigned reading from the book or supplementary

Identify key issues and opportunities associated with reaching your goal

If your goal is an ‘A’ in the class, these types of issues and opportunities could be wide ranging. Here are some example “issues and opportunities” you might uncover:

  • Most of the grade is determined by written essays, and I’ve historically not done well in essay-based classes (or vice versa, which would be a good thing)
  • A fair portion of the grade is determined by class participation, and I’m uncomfortable speaking up in class (again or vice versa)
  • There is a ton of work to do in this class (lots of reading, many quizzes, etc.) and my schedule is already very full
  • There is a huge project that is worth 33% of the final grade, and I have 3 months to begin to work on it, etc.

These issues and opportunities could have a negative or positive spin. But the important point is that they are all important factors to consider when thinking about your goal of getting an A in the class and designing a plan for reaching that goal.

Define and evaluate alternative courses of action

Here is where you, as a student, can step back and think about 2-3 broad ways to approach the class. Remember, everyone faces tradeoffs in how they spend their time and has their own personal strengths and weaknesses. No one has unlimited time, so you’ll have some choices to make as you attempt to get an A in the class. That said, I think that in the context of an AP history course, the “best alternative” will become clear based on a deep understanding of the teacher’s approach to the class.

For example, if the class seems to place a lot of weight on quizzes, tests, and exams, with a few minor papers or a project thrown into the mix and no participation grade, then an approach to the class that focuses on carving out substantial time for reviewing class notes, completing all homework and assigned readings, and making sure you fully understand all major and minor points raised in class (perhaps even by attending office hours to ask questions) probably makes sense.

An alternative approach would still have you keeping up with homework, but would have you writing essays in advance and getting feedback from the teacher, completing projects early and iterating with the teacher to improve your project grade, etc.  If, for example, the class places a large weight on performance on a major essay you’ll have to write, and you typically struggle writing essays, you should have an alternative that involves planning ahead to iterate with your teacher and get feedback on drafts of your essay.

You’ll naturally be able to map out the alternative that maximizes your chances of getting an A and is best aligned with your strengths and weaknesses.


Develop a specific plan for implementing the rough alternative you’ve chosen

The final step is to spend a little time putting pen to paper to write out the actions you’re going to take to get that A in AP US History.

For example, I will:

  • Sit in the front of the class to force myself to participate, since participation matters
  • Focus on reviewing class notes relative to reading the textbook or supplementary articles for homework, as most of the tests are pulled from topics specifically discussed in class
  • Complete essays in advance and iterate on rough drafts with the teacher
  • Complete every single homework assignment, because that alone accounts for 20% of my grade
  • Etc.