The Importance of Grades

After teaching for almost 30 years, I have come to accept that not every student will earn a good grade in my courses—to me a good grade is an A or a B. This was a bit tough for me to deal with when I first started teaching, because I had naively assumed that everyone wanted to get a good grade. I had always “gone for the A” in college (even with a busy work schedule), why wouldn’t my students too. Some students may be in a real bind as far as good grades because their ability to devote time and effort into my courses is limited by job responsibilities, military service, or by personal difficulties (including mental issues). However, there are a number of students whose lack of motivation and willingness to give their maximum effort in my classes is driven by a view that grades are simply unimportant. This latter group of students includes those who think about “Cs for degrees” or may even feel that getting a D and just passing one of my courses is OK.

In my world, what is a bummer about the students who choose not to strive for high grades is that they probably can get good grades, but something is standing in their way. If these students think that grades are simply unimportant, are they correct? It is my opinion that these students, for the most part, are incorrect and that earning good grades in college is worth pursuing. Let me add that in taking this position I am not saying that having a higher GPA means you are a smarter person. Of course, many factors will impact your GPA over and above your intelligence.

good grades-booksLet me offer 4 points in support of my thinking that good grades matter:

1) If you want to pursue a doctoral or professional (MD, DDS, Nursing, PA, PT, or OT) degree good grades are critical. As I have talked about in other places (careersinpsych.com and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/careers-in-psych), these programs are only taking the best of the best. Thus, your college grade point average (GPA) carries a lot of weight. It is possible to have a relatively low GPA offset by high scores on your entrance exam (e.g., GRE, MCAT, GMAT). However, selection committees (fair or not) will typically view a relatively low GPA in a negative light.

2) For certain jobs, especially high-paying jobs, good grades can be a “tie-breaker”. That is, if you have a 3.7 GPA and another job applicant has a 2.7 GPA, all things being equal, you will likely get selected for the job. Now I can hear some of you saying that “all things being equal” hurts my point because no job candidates are exactly the same. I agree. Nonetheless, grades are likely to be a part of the job selection equation, along with other characteristics like job skills, leadership qualities, ability to work with others, creativity and experience. My point is simply that grades can make the difference between candidates, and that it is better to have good grades than not. I will add one other point about certain jobs. Your GPA may be critical when you are looking for your first job out of college, but the value of your GPA may diminish over time–work experience may then carry the day.

3) If you get good grades in what are perceived as tough courses, this can work to your advantage. This does not mean that everyone should be taking a lot of difficult science and math courses in college. You just need to be aware that selection committees for graduate and professional school (possibly even certain jobs) will look at your transcript. Therefore, it won’t hurt that you took some science and math courses and did well in these courses. Keep in mind that those individuals making a decision about your future want to be sure that you were not taking a bunch of “bunny” courses to inflate your GPA.

goodgrades-arrows4) High grades can open up various opportunities for you in college. Let me give three quick examples. First, there are a number of scholarships that open up while you are in college. As you can imagine, these scholarships are not going to students with low GPAs. Second, it is typically the case that faculty will choose students with the highest grades to work in their lab or conduct other research. I am one of these faculty members. I look for the brightest and most motivated students to join my lab; high grades help me determine which students to select. Is it possible that I have missed a “diamond in the rough”—a student with high potential but low grades? Of course, but I feel over the years high grades have been a good indicator of productive research assistants. Finally, when it comes times to securing letters of recommendation you will probably have a better chance of having a faculty member write you a letter if you have done well in school. Moreover, the stronger your academic record, the better your letter.

In closing, I want to reiterate that grades are not everything. You may have qualities (e.g., leadership skills, creativity) that can overcome poor grades. In addition, I do not want to discount the importance of networking or experience in helping you move forward with your career. Finally, good grades require a lot of time and effort. The cost of high grades may be a loss of some sleep and social time. Still, in the end I feel the benefits of good grades outweigh the cost. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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Flashcards Revisited

          I am a believer…a believer in Flashcards! As the semester moves along and I see my students studying for exams I decided to revisit a topic I talked about a few months ago–the power of flashcards. I will present some information that I posted earlier, but I wanted to add some data to show how effective flashcards can be for your studying.

computer-flashcardpost2          Flashcards have a interesting reputation. On the one hand they are typically viewed as a tool for young children who are learning basic arithmetic. A child reads 2 + 2 on the front of a card and then must come up with the answer. They check their accuracy by looking on the back of the card. On the other hand, my own research has shown that flashcards really have no age limits and that flashcards are especially useful for college students. If you need to study a large amount of information and you are going to be asked specific questions (e.g., multiple-choice exams) flashcards are an ideal way to study. As I said in my earlier post, whether it is learning chemical symbols, psychological terms, or historical events flashcards work!

          Here is a short description of my research showing the effectiveness of flashcards. I did a study a few years ago that was published in Teaching of Psychology. I surveyed students in my Intro to Psychology class—there were 415 students in the class. I found that 141 used flashcards on all exams. Most of these flashcard users had written flashcards that they made themselves on 3×5 cards instead of using online flashcard sites like Quizlet.(I should note that I have seen many more students using online sites in just the few years since I published my research.) The results showed that students who used flashcards on all exams had significantly higher scores overall than those who did not use flashcards on all three exams. My survey also found that about 75% of my students used flashcards in any of their classes, especially in Natural Science courses like Chemistry and Biology.

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          Flashcards work for various reasons. A few specific things flashcards make you do is (a) distribute your studying over time, which has been shown to lead to better memory; (b) be an active participant in your studying; (c) manage your study time effectively; and (d) make your studying more like the exam you will be taking. With this in mind, here are my pointers on making and using flashcards. I will add that I made a video that can give you a start to helping you make flashcards:

https://vimeo.com/48027675

1) make flashcards after each class; typically, everything in your notes should be on a card

2) be brief on each flashcard (more like exam itself)

3) as you write (or type) each flashcard, you should pay attention and learn the information on the card

4) after making the flashcards, shuffle them–it is rare to be tested on information in sequential order

5) test yourself using the flashcards right after you make cards

6) when you test yourself, put each tested flashcard in a pile of “Know” or “Don’t Know”

7) Go back over the “Don’t Know” pile until you can answer each flashcard correctly

8) After each lecture make new flashcards, add them to your old flashcards, shuffle the deck and then test yourself as before

If you follow the steps I described above (and in the video) I think you will find that using flashcards can really help you out in those courses that lend themselves to this type of study strategy.

Don’t Delay! Set Up A Study Schedule

The start of the semester means that exams are on the horizon. I would not expect you to be happy about these exams, but at the same time I would hope that you don’t have an “end-of-the-world” attitude about exams—exams are simply a part of college. In my opinion, the best thing you can do right now about your exams is to make sure you are going to be prepared to study for each exam by setting up a study schedule ASAP.

glasses-studyBefore I get to the specifics of how to do this, I must step back and say that there are always going to be some students who will read about setting up a study schedule and will shrug it off. Some will argue that they never had to be very organized with their studying in the past and have still done well. To these students I say “Lucky you”–you are either that smart or your classes so easy that you were not challenged on your exams. However, it is typically the case that these students will run into a class or classes where the lack of a study schedule will lead to a very low grade. I know this, because every year when I teach Introduction to Psychology—not the hardest class but a class that definitely has a lot of content—I get students who did poorly on exams because they had no plan for studying.

There are also other students who tell me that they do not have the time to study until a day or so before an exam because of a busy work schedule or their other classes. With regard to the former, I can empathize with you because I worked two and sometimes three jobs during college and had a lot of classes, but I always understood that school was my highest priority. Hopefully, some of the tips I will provide can get you on a study schedule where you can manage your time effectively. With regard to the latter, juggling classes can sometimes be very difficult. However, again I feel that having a plan for your studying can help you deal with all of your classes.

Most of these students who do not set up a study schedule can be labeled “crammers”–they wait until the last minute and then work very hard to learn a lot of material. Although cramming may lead to some short-term success, cramming typically perpetuates poor study habits, does not lead to successful long-term learning and may even lead to health problems as a result of stress.

To avoid cramming and thus lead to better learning and exam success, here are some tips to help you set up a study schedule. The key to these tips is to improve your time management—organization and planning—so that you have enough time to study, even when you have exams close together in time.

1) Create an academic calendar with all exam dates marked. If you are going to have quizzes that will require studying these should be marked too.

2) Determine when you have free time to study. This can get tough considering that you have to account for time to eat, sleep, attend club meetings, go to the gym, work, etc., but it should be the case that you have enough open times in your schedule to mange all of your studying.

3) Determine how much time you will need to study for each exam. For example, some will argue that they need a week before each exam to prepare. However, others (including myself) feel that studying for any class should occur as soon as you get new material for that class. This “new material” approach is especially important if you plan to use flashcards to help prepare for exams.

4) Determine how much time per study session you will need for a particular class. For example, if you are good in Math you might need less time to study for this class compared to another class for which the subject matter drives you crazy. One thing I will add here is that if you choose a long study session (e.g., 60 minutes) it is best to break this time into parts (e.g., 20 or 30 minutes pieces). Breaking things up can help keep you focused on the material.

5) Set up study times and days (including weekends) using a calendar. You can organize your calendar to indicate each class you have by using different colored markers.

two studying

6) Be strong and stick to your schedule! It’s easy to blow off a study session, and there will definitely be times that you would rather do anything else but study. However, it is critical to stick to your schedule and try not to miss any session. Of course, something may come up and you have to skip, but the more you can be true to your study schedule the greater the probability of a good grade. One way to help you stick to your schedule is to see if (for specific classes) you can find a study partner. However, only choose a study partner if you are actually going to study and not talk more than you study.

If you can follow these tips I think you will find that you will have greater control over your studying, learn more, and be more prepared for all of your exams. Good luck!

Are Some Grades More Important Than Others?

As finals approach for many students, I keep hearing students talk about how certain grades are more important than others. They talk about this level of importance in terms of how much time and effort they plan to put into their preparation for final projects/papers and exams. For example, I had a student talk to me about how it was much more important for her to get an A in her Chemistry class because she was pre-med than for her to get an A in my Psychology course. Because of her ranking, she told me it was doubtful that she would be able to spend much time studying for her Psychology final. Her hope was that she would end up with a B in my class.

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I gave what she had to say a lot of thought, and have tried to determine what might be the advantages and disadvantages of taking this ranking approach to classes. A clear advantage to ranking courses is that you can focus your resources on courses in your major or program of study (e.g., pre-med). If you are trying for high grades in these courses then making them the highest priority will insure that you spend the greatest amount of time possible studying for these courses.

Sadly, however, the ranking approach only goes so far and there is a major cost associated with it. Of course, when you prioritize some courses over others you will not be spending a lot of time studying for these lower ranked courses. The end result of this strategy is likely to be a decrease in grades in these lower ranked courses. In high school this might seem like a reasonable plan because certain courses, such as AP courses, are typically weighted more than other classes and thus impact your GPA and class rank. However, in college, courses are not weighted. Thus, getting a low grade in any college course is going to impact your GPA.

Related to the above I should add that I have also heard students who rank courses rationalize this strategy by saying that the only courses that really matter for getting into graduate school or professional school are those in your major or program of study. My opinion (and that of colleagues I have talked to about this) is that thinking like this is very risky. When you apply to graduate or professional school, faculty will review your entire record. Yes, they will want to see if you did well in specific courses, but faculty are generally not willing to dismiss poor performance (in my thinking anything less than B) in general studies courses (which often seem to get a low rank).

Let me give a final example that students may want to think about. As I have said in other posts I have been teaching a long time—now in my 28th year—and each year I teach Introduction to Psychology. Almost every year I have at least one pre-med student who has used the ranking strategy and does poorly in my course. I believe that students like this would have done well if they had put just a little more time into my course. Instead, they keep thinking that my course will be a “bunny” course, and they end up with a poor grade. Regrettably, these students do not realize that this low (but avoidable) grade will potentially haunt them when they apply for medical school.

In the end, my advice is to consider all of the consequences of ranking some college grades as more important than others. As I said, there may be some value to earning high grades in only courses in your major. However, you may end up taking a big risk–in my opinion a risk not worth taking.

Acronyms: Weird Word, Excellent Mnemonic!

There are a lot of different memory techniques that you can use to learn material for class. The one I’m going to talk about today is called an acronym. This is a word that you make by taking the first letter or first few letters of each word you’re trying to remember and then using these to spell a new word. We actually use these all the time; the word SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Another acronym is NABISCO, which stands for NAtional BIscuit COmpany. Here’s an acronym you might already know, which, unlike the last two, is meant as a memory aid rather than only creating a shorter word: ROY G. BIV, which stands for the colors of the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). If you already use this acronym to remember these colors, you can see that acronyms can be very handy.

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Acronyms are easy to use; let’s look at an example of how it’s done. Let’s say you had to learn the names of the Great Lakes for a Geography class. The names of these lakes are Ontario, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. To make an acronym, write down the first letter of each word and move the letters around until you spell something. Here, that would be HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). Now take your time and think about the word HOMES and the names of the Great Lakes that begin with each of its five letters. After a few rehearsals you’ll know the Great Lakes perfectly.

Another example: the three Axis powers of the Second World War were Germany, Japan, and Italy. Can you think of an acronym to remember them? I’m thinking that you came up with JIG. I’m also thinking that you will have no problem remembering this word, and that once you think of this word, you’ll have no problem remembering the Axis powers.

As you come up with acronyms, keep these things in mind.

1) Try to spell a real word. Some students have told me that they use made-up words, but I think this makes things needlessly hard.
2) It’s best if one of the words you need to learn starts with a vowel, or else you’ll have trouble spelling any word you can reasonably pronounce. You can get around this, though, even if it might make the acronym slightly more difficult to remember. If I had to memorize three large cities for some–New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles–I could add a vowel to make the semi-acronym CLaN. I would actively imagine the consonants as uppercase and the extra vowel as lowercase to remind me that only the uppercase letters stood for anything.

Acronyms can really help you come exam time. In later posts I’ll talk about different memory aids.

Consider a Study Group

Getting all your studying done can be a real drag, but one way to make it easier is to join a study group. Here are some reasons why you might want to consider studying with others at least some of the time.

1) A study group can test you on the material. You can test yourself, but maybe you’ll be tempted to get a bit lazy about this—moving to the next item when you feel sure you know something. It’s easier for someone else, like a classmate in a study group, to be tough and make sure you have the right answer before moving on.

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2) Most students don’t have a very regimented study schedule, only studying when they feel they have the time, and therefore missing or avoiding studying. When you’re in a study group, your schedule is strictly determined. If the group meets on Tuesday and Thursday at 9 PM, then that’s when you are going to study; you can’t keep rescheduling your study time and get off track.

3) A less obvious benefit of a study group is that you can compare your notes with those of other members of the group to make sure your notes are complete. During class, it’s easy to miss important material that might be on the exam because you were thinking about something else. In your study group, it’s unlikely that everyone missed the same part of the lecture.

4) You can discuss the class material with those who think differently from you and who each bring unique strengths to the group. Your classmates may understand certain things better than you, and be able to explain them to you. This will make your study session go faster.

5) In a study group, you will have to clearly explain things so that everyone in the group can follow. Because others depend on your ability to explain things, this will push you to thoroughly learn the material.

6) A study group can help build friendships. I always preach that college is a time to grow intellectually, but also a time to grow personally. You can get to know others as you learn material and hopefully become good friends with them—and the friendships you make in college can last a lifetime.

In closing: I understand that some of you only want to study by yourselves. Please consider what I have said, and think carefully about your decision. For some of you, studying with others can really pay off.