Improving Academic Performance

Simple Academic Strategies: Part Two

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Tue, Dec 02, 2014 @ 10:26 AM

Simple Academic Strategies  Part TwoIn our last article, we talked about how thinking strategically is as important to students as it is to businesses. We described how, by thinking strategically about what classes to take, any given student can position him or herself well to graduate on time even if they switch majors, be more attractive to employers, and enjoy their academic experience, at the margin, more than they otherwise would. In this post, we’ll explore some simple, obvious, but powerful strategies for performing well in any given class.

I wasn't the best student in high school, but I do remember setting goals. The problem was with the goals I set. I wanted to get “As and Bs.” Well, if you aren’t the most diligent student, and your goal is “As and Bs, “ what happens? You get As, Bs, and Cs – nobody meets their goals all the time, particularly if they aren’t the most diligent student. Putting aside the fact that I wasn’t the most diligent student, this was an example of poor goal setting, which you could also call poor strategy.

Here’s another example, ever since high school, I’ve been amazed at the number of students who didn’t fully realize how their grade in any given class was going to be determined. They didn’t gather the simple facts that would help them determine what percentage of your grade is based on homework, attendance, tests, quizzes, or projects.

If you don’t have a full understanding of how the grade is determined, your chances of earning a high grade are drastically diminished.  Or, the effort you must exert to attain a high grade will invariably be higher than it needs to be, because you focus on the wrong things. Again, bad strategy.

Moving beyond how the grade is determined into the meat of the article, many students get frustrated by not understanding concepts in class, having difficulty on homework, exams, and papers, and ultimately struggling to get an “A” while ignoring simple actions they could be taken to improve their situation. They retreat to the library or their room, put their head down, and study for hours, which is tiring and not much fun.

In this article, I’m not even going to address specific strategies for achieving better understanding of difficult concepts and improving memory which will ultimately improve your performance. Previous articles on the growth mindset and deliberate practice cover topics like this. You could also read A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Algebra

Here, I’ll just describe some simple, yet strategic approaches to doing better in any given class.

First, you need to set a goal. If you’d really like to get an “A,” make that your goal. If that’s your goal, you will naturally be inclined to work a little harder to meet that goal. If you say “A or B”, it’s far more likely you’ll meet your goal – and not get an A.

Second, you need to gather some simple facts on how the class works. For example, many teachers or professors make it clear that their class will operate in specific ways:

  • many of the exam questions are direct derivations of problems reviewed in class, or
  • any student should feel free to drop off their reports a few days in advance to obtain feedback before final submission or
  • class participation counts for a lot (or a little) or
  • some concepts you’ll need to know are covered not in class, but in the required readings done for homework, or
  • office hours are from 3-5 PM on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I’m happy to cover questions from class, homework, or exams,
  • etc.

Reading the syllabus in detail and attending the first class to learn the intricacies of the professor, and in general, the process of understanding how you’ll be graded, is really the fact-base that should feed into your plan of attack for the class.  If you know you’ve never performed well on written assignments or essays, written assignments count for 50% of this class, but the teacher is also willing to read and provide feedback on any given paper that is turned in a week before the due date, then you need to make plans to have that paper finished for review 7 days in advance. 

So, now we’re getting into what alternatives to consider and plans to make coming out of the fact-base you’ve developed about the class. Let’s consider two scenarios: completing a paper early, and using office hours.

If you just get your paper done 7 days in advance, the professor will sometimes review it and provide you with feedback. I’m not saying this is always true, but it sometimes is. Do you think your chances of getting a good grade go up if your professor is reading a final version that incorporates the suggestions he or she made to you already? Absolutely they go up. They go up a lot.

Or, let’s consider homework and office hours. Many students are busy. They have a lot of classes, and many other responsibilities. But, the simple strategy of a) always doing assigned homework and b) going to office hours if you don’t understand something in the homework is one of the most simple, but powerful ways to perform well in a class. But, few students follow it. It takes a little dedication and time management, but honestly, it’s easy to do.

The final step is simple, but important. If your strategy is to get every paper done 7 days in advance and have it reviewed, and to complete your homework and attend office hours if you need to, you have to plan the time to actually do those things. This is where time management and organization skills play a key role. A good strategy, poorly executed, won’t lead to the results you’re looking for.

To learn more about being more strategic in school business, and life, consider reading Nine Things Successful People do differently.


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