How do I get better grades in school?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I get better grades in school?

First of all, it’s important to recognise that it’s not about the amount of effort you put into studying that ensure you get better grades. You need to study smart and work smart. Studying hard and working hard will be very futile if you lack good learning methods.

In my four years teaching in NUS I often see students referring to learning resources and blindly trying to replicate the structure/form in order to answer an assignment. Students think that when they do this, they can’t go wrong if they model their answer off it. Of course in my module, students freak out when they discover they can’t do this.

And in fact, you should never do this. When you try to replicate the structure of an answer or lift lines from a lecture slide to answer a question, you are undermining the learning process. There is no real engagement with the question or the content. So you’re not really internalising what you are learning, and so the learning is superficial: it doesn’t go to the level where you can really link it to other issues or reach the level of creative mastery where you can take the knowledge to make something new.

A good way of gauging how well you understand something you’re taught is to always ask yourself how it is relevant to other things out in the world or how you can use that knowledge to do something (yes even seemingly “useless” knowledge that’s abstract from real life!). If you can’t see the link or can’t find the link, you haven’t understood it well enough to know how it extends beyond the classroom. I know students struggle with this and they would like their lecturers to show them how, but sometimes when we do, we’re met with scepticism. The problem resides with the learner. The learner hasn’t internalised and mastered the learning to see the relation for themselves.

An A grade is supposed to mean that you have mastered your learning well. So use this as a way of gauging how well you’ve mastered the content/skills. Because if you have reached this level of mastery, you can be confident that you are heading in the right direction towards an A.

Now, one other thing I noticed is that many students these are very impatient when it comes to assignments. They want to get over and done with it, and some of them are so immature that they resent their lecturers for making them work longer than they want to. Especially at University level, a lot of high quality work can only be produced after long hours of reading, thinking, and writing. Some people like to boast being able to write 3000 words in a short span of time. It reveals a grave lack of thought on the subject. To be clear, I’m not saying that if you spend a week on an assignment, you’ll get an A. What I’m saying is if you spend more time on it, your thoughts will mature and deepen beyond the mere superficialities. I mean… If something is so obvious and easy to answer at University, do you think we would be spending hours of our lives working on it? When we invite you to share in our experience through the various learning activities, we want you to develop a better grasp of the subtle complexities underlying the issues.

So if you do want to score well, you need to discuss more, read more, and think more. Rushed work usually results in poor work and a poor grade.

Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Can I ask what’s your CAP when you were an undergrad if you don’t mind sharing? I want to pursue an academic life but I don’t know if I am smart enough. My CAP currently stands at the bare minimum for a first class honours. Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

Hello, I don’t mind sharing. Here’s how my CAP evolved from start to end as an undergrad:

Year 1 Sem 1: 3.88
Year 1 Sem 2: 3.89
Year 2 Sem 1: 4.11
Year 2 Sem 2: 4.29
Year 3 Sem 1: 4.31
Year 3 Sem 2: 4.41
Year 3 Sem 3: 4.43 (Special Term)
Year 4 Sem 1: 4.45
Year 4 Sem 2: 4.52

I succeeded in getting First Class Honours in my final semester. And as you can see, every semester has been a constant process of improvement.

In general, most people enter academia with either First Class Honours or Second Upper, i.e. CAP ≥ 4.0). (FYI: Once you get your postgraduate degree, people don’t really care much about what you did in undergrad. They will look more at what you did for your postgraduate studies instead.)

CAP is not necessarily a measure of your intellect. In fact, I am very wary of people boasting First Class or Second Upper CAP. The reason being that there are many students able to secure a high CAP because they are so scared of screwing their CAP that they take “safe” modules or modules that are “easy to score.” So these people have effectively screwed up their chance at a real education. Without that challenge, they graduate no different from the person they were when they first matriculated, both in terms of intellect, and also in terms of mental and emotional maturity.

I know this sounds harsh. But the reason why I wrote this is because if you want to do well in academia (or the working world, for that matter), you must be willing to challenge yourself, you must be willing to take risks (and of course, know how to mitigate these risks as well).

The kinds of people who score high CAPs because of “safe” decisions cannot make it in academia (or the professional world for that matter). I say this because of people I personally know. They scored First Class Honours because they wrote “safe” paper topics for “safe” modules. Their mentality is one driven by fear: “I am afraid to try other things because I don’t want my CAP to suffer.”

And I’ve seen them continue that trend in postgraduate studies. In the end, they didn’t make it because their work is so “safe” that it is uninspiring (boring) and doesn’t make much of a difference to the world (because it was written not to challenge one’s self or anyone for that matter, and so it had no potential to change anything).

So if you are willing to challenge yourself to constantly improve rather than take safe options just to maintain a high CAP, then I’ll say you have the personal qualities to do well in academia, and you’ll go very far for that matter. :)

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

A student wrote to me:

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

Here’s my answer!

It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between A+, A, and A-. So I’ll just make a distinction between A+/A and the rest. From my observations in teaching GET1050 for one year, I can say that IN GENERAL (remember: this is just a generalisation based on my observations) A+/A students in FASS exhibit very distinct personal qualities and work attitude/habits that are a class apart from the the others.

Here’s a list of some common traits that stand out to me (this list is not exhaustive – also, if you want to improve in your grades and as a person, it’s good to adopt some of these traits):

(1) They pay attention to detail. They carefully read every word that written by their profs/tutors and they are not afraid to ask and clarify when in doubt.

(2) They make it a point to actively engage with the content they are learning. They aren’t just blindly following examples laid out in lectures/tutorials. They are actually trying to understand and internalise what they are learning.

(3) And because they are actively trying to understand and internalise their learning, they are able to ask very high level questions that take their learning even further.

(4) They regularly doubt themselves and this provides them with a self-checking mechanism to identify when they might be wrong about their understanding or about their methods. These students can at least zoom in on their doubts. This is distinct from “kiasu” students who consult their profs/tutors because they want to “check” that their work is ok because they have a vague sense of uncertainty.

(5) They are very independent learners and will search for answers themselves. Another key distinction is that they aren’t just seeking answers to assessment questions just to get the marks. They are seeking answer to their doubts!

(6) These students are willing to work very hard and pour in additional hours of hard work just to make sure they get things right because they take pride in their work. One key difference that makes them stand out from the other students is that they are working smart as they work hard, they’re not just blindly wasting hours away in an unstrategic manner.

(7) They don’t shy away from a challenge, in fact, many of them enjoy a good challenge.

(8) Essentially, they have a very positive working attitude that has led them to develop these good work habits. They take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

A+/A students stand out from as early as Week 2 of the semester. It’s because they spend so many hours thinking about what they learnt, that they are able to ask questions that are a class apart from the kinds of questions other students ask. And you can tell that they spent many hours thinking about the issues because many of the things they consult me on cannot be easily arrived at just by watching the lecture videos alone: these question came from their reflections, experimentations, or attempts to apply their learning to other things.