How do I know if what I am doing is enough to do well academically?

A student asked:

How do I know if what I am doing is enough to do well academically? Am I thinking critically enough, etc.

There are a couple of things that you need to ensure of to be sure that you will do well academically:

(1) That you are learning effectively. I have to say that in my 4 years of teaching in NUS, I found that many students are not learning effectively. What many students do — and this is probably something they learnt from primary/secondary school — is that they memorise model answers or model templates of how to answer, and then they adapt that to fit the given question or task at hand. There is little to no internalisation of one’s learning. The understanding is very superficial and not enough to do well for university-level exams where you are often tested on higher level thinking abilities. So you need to learn how to stop adapting from model answers, internalise what you’re learning so that you can articulate the answer confidently on your own.

(2) It’s also very important to know how to articulate and express yourself clearly. I know many students work very hard for their assignments, but they don’t realise how vague and ambiguous their answers are. Many students are unaware of the assumptions in their heads, and they don’t make it a point to flash out all the assumptions behind their thoughts. I think some students are too focused on the answers, and so they just give the answers without providing the thought process which is the most important thing that we want to see in University. It’s like going for a maths exams and writing down the answers without any working. How to give marks if you don’t show provide the working, the thought process behind it? This is very bad, and failure to express yourself clearly can make you drop many grades.

(3) And of course hard work is very important, but you need to work smart, not hard. Many students think that they can score well if they burn many hours working on a module without any particular strategy. They’ll do the readings, work on the assignments, etc. But that’s really not enough. Because you are being assessed for higher level thinking in university, you need to spend a good amount of time thinking about your readings, assignments and lesson; reflecting on it; discussing your ideas with friends; and reflecting some more about it. It’s not about memorising. It’s about understanding and connecting the dots of many things that you’ve learnt, or trying to extend that learning to something else or something further. The hours of effort needs to go in that direction.

You cannot produce profound insights by rushing your assignments. Nor will you be able to produce profound insights by passively reading or learning without an active engagement with the content through discussions with friends and deep reflection on what you’ve learnt. If I have to be brutally honest, only a very small percentage of students demonstrate this level of profound insight. The rest are just working hard but not smart, and not spending enough time contemplating on their learning. The analysis and evaluations they produce are very superficial.

Before I end, I do want to reframe the definition and concern of what it means to do well academically. I personally don’t think grades are a good indicator of whether you have allowed your university education to shape you well. The whole point of a university education is to shape you into becoming a better person, one with a matured mind enriched with broad perspectives about people and the world; one who is capable of leading others well and managing people and resources effectively.

But students can get too focused on grades that they don’t actually transform for the better by the time they graduate. I know people who graduated with First Class Honours, but their mind, heart and morals are anything but first class. Some people graduate from university and remain the same person that they were when they first matriculated. Their mind remained narrow, they did not grow in maturity or reason. They might be academically strong, but they failed the very objective of a university education.

In University, you will be surrounded by great people, whether it is your professors or your peers. And it’s very important not to use them as benchmarks to compare and conclude how lousy you are. The fact that you have made it to University already speaks volumes of how great you yourself are.

If you want to compare, use them as benchmarks as aspirations for who you can become by enriching yourself with interactions with them. The sky’s the limits when it comes to definitions of excellence. When you compare yourself with them, you’ll realise that there’ll always be someone or many people better than you in writing, in speaking, in thinking, and in so many other things. So you can aspire to be like them. That’s fine.

But the best benchmark will be yourself. Whether or not you struggle with your learning, or whether you do well (or not so well) academically, it’s important to aim to be a better better than who you currently are: whether academically, or as a matured thinker, or as a leader, or even as a moral person. Use these aspirational figures as your models. What’s important is that at the end of every semester, you should be able to look back and see how much you’ve grown and developed as a person since the start of that semester. If you can see that you’re growing and not stagnating, then I will say that you are doing well in University. Your education has transformed you. This is the stuff that truly matters.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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