How to get good grades

Samuel Leatherwood graduated summa cum laude from Florida Gulf Coast University with a BA in psychology. While there, he did research on social influence, meaning in life, and unconscious processing. He is currently teaching at a collegiate high school in Southwest Florida.

The classroom is quiet, desks creek, and all eyes are fixed on the teacher as he beats the test-papers on his desk to straighten them out; they echo like a courtroom gavel—judgment day. The tall, skinny professor sits on the table in the front of the room and in a calm voice announces how the class performed as a whole while the students try to decipher what that means for them in particular. “Am I an average student?”
“How’d you do” is a phrase any college student will have to get used to. This magical game can transform a C into relief or embarrassment—depending on who you ask. Over time there grew a playful discontent with my answers, as they rarely offered the opportunity for downward social comparison. It soon turned into a fiction about me being really smart; but people creating myths to account for an uncomfortable truth isn’t anything new—have you seen what the political right has done with climate change? Sure, I enjoyed the feeling of people looking up to me, who doesn’t, but I’d prefer to look at people eye-to-eye, especially when I know smarts aren’t the main reason for my grades.
After a while, a large group of students took it upon themselves to invite me to their morning-of-test study group; as if my presence would somehow sprinkle their session with good-grade-fairy-dust. We reserved a room in the library with a large dry erase board, long table, and flexible chairs; it looked like a business meeting, and I was the CEO.
Four weeks later, the wheel turns, déjà vu, were back again in the silent class with all the same emotions: fear, excitement, relief, and embarrassment. Did the fairy-dust work? Did my study group fly to Never-fail-land? Some did better, some did not; oh no, I am starting to lose my magical quality. Although people finding out that I’m not as special as they thought is the bane of my ego, I’ll take it if that means people start to see the world more accurately.
Voices expressed with discontent: “We did what you did, studied with you, I just don’t get it.” “How do you do it?” “That test was hard, I thought I knew all that stuff, but there was a lot I had never seen before.” To their questions, I would reply: Did you read the book? Their answers: “Well, I read some.” “I learned the vocab.” “I read the chapter review.” “No.” Any number of answers would come up, but usually “yes every word of it” was not one of them.
Textbooks are often written by experts in the field who have also been teaching for decades. What this amounts to is accurate, research-based information with top-notch pedagogy derived from years of teaching students; they know what examples work and what concepts are typically challenging. I understand that the syllabus says buy the book and there is a chance work will be assigned out of it, but for the most part the biggest reason you are required to buy that book is, drum roll, to learn out of it.
In addition to reading the book, take notes on the chapter. This guy has got to be kidding. No, I am serious, note-taking increases memory, but there’s another reason: studying for the test. Who has the time to return to four chapters of a book that spans 120 or so pages to study for a test? My method was to take notes on anything that I found to be new or interesting. This way when it is time to study you have 15-25 pages of condensed information—much more manageable than the 120 from the book alone, not to mention class notes.
Still not convinced, I get it: you are pressed for time and being a Homo economicus (economic human) you are seeking efficiency through time management. Part-time jobs, full load of classes; where’s the incentive to read each chapter and take notes on it? You will be reading things that won’t be tested and writing a whole lot that won’t be graded! Remember though, school is for learning, a warmup for real life, grades aren’t that important, and everything you learn increases your human capital; isn’t that good Homo economicus?
The best part about all of this is that when the tests are being passed out, the room is quiet, and the teacher beats the papers on the desk, you can be the one sitting with calm repose because for you the test is not that important; you learned the material and feel confident that the grade will reflect that. Then when your classmates see the magic in you and attempt to expel your “secrets,” you can ask them: Did you read the book?

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