Here's the way to get straight A's
Two professors have written the first-ever good-grades guidebook
JULIA MCKINNELL | Sep 01, 2006
Like it or not, grades are the currency at college and university. "They're the money. They're what counts," say two professors who are also the co-authors of a new book that claims to be the first ever to reveal the secrets a student needs to know to score straight A's. Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman, a husband-and-wife team from the University of Arkansas, are the authors of Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College. Lynn Jacobs teaches art history. Her husband, Jeremy Hyman, who has taught at MIT and Princeton, currently teaches medieval philosophy.
Discussing grades with students is controversial. A lot of professors don't want to get into it. "It runs the risk of a challenge or confrontation from a hostile or sobbing student," writes Hyman. And giving advice on grades is considered by many professors to be "unbecoming."
Yet Hyman vividly remembers back when he was a student getting an assignment and feeling "stunned" at the lack of instruction given by the teaching assistant. The assignment asked for six to eight pages on either a)Is Homer's Iliad a poem of force? or b)Could Odysseus ever return home? "How exactly was I to write nine pages on what looked to me like a one-sentence answer?" asks Hyman, remembering how absurd he thought it was that the teaching assistant refused to provide any guidance. "I thought to myself, 'If I ever get out of this course, if I ever become a professor myself, I will do something about this deplorable state of affairs.' "
Years later, while cleaning out his office, Hyman came across a folder crammed with tips he'd made for students when he became a teaching assistant. "I took a glance at the first one and thought, 'Gee, here's a good tip. And here's another.' " That night, he and his wife Lynn brainstormed about their best ideas for getting good grades. "The Professors' Guide had been born," he says.
Professor Peter Taylor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., laments the fact that today's student is so focused on grades. "In the sixties you wouldn't need a book like this," says Taylor. These days, a simple diploma doesn't cut it. Employers look at grades for the initial cut to decide who to interview, he says. Top marks get the top jobs. Taylor would prefer a system with less value placed on marks. "More in the way of pass/fail courses," he says. "Bright can mean a lot of things. Highly creative students can't always perform in high-pressure situations," such as tests and exams.
Professor Milt McClaren at Simon Fraser University in Richmond, B.C., scoffs at the idea that talking grades to students teeters on questionable etiquette. "I try to make it absolutely clear what my expectations are. And I also try to make it clear how I'm going to evaluate students so that they know what the rules of the game are," he says. McClaren adds that his colleagues often say to him: "You know, students don't talk about anything anymore. All they want to do is talk about what's on the test." It's a common complaint among professors, he says, to which he replies: "Do you have a mirror in your bathroom? Well, look in it. We're the enemy. We're the people who are driving this culture."
A grade point average, McClaren says, "is worse than a criminal record. You're never going to get rid of it." Professors should have some sympathy with that situation, he feels. "It's not good enough to tell a kid, 'Just suck it up. I don't want to discuss it with you because it's kind of crass.' "
Hyman and Jacobs' book looks at everything from how papers and exams are marked and which courses to take to when and how to drop or pick up a course; how to make the most of lectures; how to study for and write exams; and finally, the dos and don'ts of talking to a prof.
To start things off, they set straight what they believe are misleading myths. For instance, "A is for Attendance" is incorrect, they write. "It's simply not the case that attendance will get you a good grade." Jacobs and Hyman don't discourage attendance, but the focus in grading is on product not process. Furthermore, the grader of a course could be an anonymous grad student, so sucking up to the prof in class is likely a waste of time.
The book also claims that it's a myth that professors don't care how well students do. "The fact is," they write, "professors feel really good about giving out A's and really bad about giving out C's and D's." Taylor, who teaches math and statistics, concurs. "I really hate failing a student. I really hate getting a paper where the student simply hasn't done anything that's worth very much."
McClaren's take is alarmingly different, however. If a prof hands out too many A's, he says, "I can tell you right now you're going to get a memo that's going to say, 'You're giving too many A's.' You're [seen as] too soft. A lot of people have a curve in their head that it's only possible for five per cent of students to get an A. We need to rethink the grading system."
When it comes to essays, graders have basic expectations, write Jacobs and Hyman. If the paper displays knowledge but it's not fancy or embellished, it gets a B. If it omits something that the grader thinks is an essential point, or if it's confusing, vague or irrelevant, it'll probably get a C. An A paper, on the other hand, shows a deep understanding of the material and likely brings in extra data or original insight to support the points made. Beware. A teaching assistant will "put your work under the microscope of their intellect and knowledge. They're primed to find errors," Jacobs and Hyman write.
In chapter three of Professors' Guide, the authors discuss the well-known strategy of students "larding up" their schedules with "Mickey Mouse" courses, which Taylor notes was unheard of in his day. "I don't even remember the word 'bird course' being around," he says. Children's literature("kiddie lit"), for instance, is always a popular way to fulfil an English requirement without ever having to read anything above a Grade 2 level. Surprisingly enough, Jacobs and Hyman don't discourage the practice. However, the authors include the cautionary tale of a classics major who signed up for "Greek and Roman Sports and Recreation" expecting a respite from intellectual rigour, but who found himself so bored he wound up with a C.
"The moral?" write Jacobs and Hyman. "If you take a course because it's easy and slog through it like a zombie, you might end up with a less stellar grade." Beware also of the "birdy" sounding sociology course. If it presupposes a command of statistics, it'll be a "GPA-buster for someone who isn't good with numbers."
As for prof "shopping," if students have good evidence that someone is a "hard-ass grader," they need to think carefully before proceeding. Jacobs and Hyman suggest students ask another professor whether they can "expect to do well" in so-and-so's class. They should also look for a posted grade sheet from the previous term or ask friends what their experience in the course was.
A foreign-language requirement is the "Fear Factor of the college scene," write Jacobs and Hyman. "Once your grades in a language course start to slide, it's hard to stop the downward spiral." They suggest not picking a language that requires learning a new alphabet. Chinese, for instance -- "unless you plan to go into business in Asia(contact Wal-Mart or Proctor and Gamble for more details)," they write.
If students find a course totally incomprehensible, or if they like the course but don't like the professor, "it's an absolute no-brainer." Drop it, advise the authors. And if, after dropping a course, a student enters a new course late, he should introduce himself to the professor, they advise. That way, he'll look like a diligent student. Politely request a course syllabus is their advice. And never say anything like: "I missed the first class, did you do anything?"
On the subject of taking lecture notes, Hyman and Jacobs propose that students average a page every 15 minutes. Tape-recording is a "monumental waste of time," they write. "How could it be better the second time? If you're ever in a position to generate an excellent set of notes, it's surely when you're maximally engaged."
In preparing for exams, Jacobs and Hyman suggest students look for old tests at the library or at frat and sorority houses. Many professors are too overworked, they say, to invent new questions, especially for multiple choice or essay questions that contain several parts. In review sessions, Jacobs and Hyman tell students to listen for cues from their teaching assistant, such as "You know what would make a good exam question . . ."
And students should always ensure ahead of time that they understand exam lingo. There's a difference between the instructions "compare" and "contrast" and "describe" and "evaluate." When asked to advance a hypothesis, for instance, they shouldn't start thinking they should summarize.
As well, it's the authors' opinion that any exam that looks like a "pig mess" gets a C. Students should avoid green or purple felt-tip pens, and write with black ink. Finally, if they're running out of time and it's a multiple choice test, Jacobs and Hyman instruct students to "blacken all the D's." If it's a math exam, they should include the strategy they would have used to solve the problem.
Professors' Guide devotes a whole chapter to the dos and don'ts of seeing the professor during office hours. McClaren, for his part, says "good luck to you." With a thousand students in a lecture theatre, it's "just not going to happen," he says of one-on-one meetings with every student.
Should you get an appointment, the book offers several points of etiquette.
1. Don't expect the professor to give you the answer.
2. Take notes during your meeting. Tell the prof when you don't understand.
3. Never lock horns with the professor and if you do, go back and apologize.
4.. Email is perfectly acceptable but make sure you set up a reputable account. Don't email from your hotchick@hotmail account.
5. Begin email respectfully. "Dear Professor ," and "Thank you for your kind help."
6. Don't email incessantly and don't assume that you're hated if you don't get a prompt reply.
And for those students who really are clueless:
7. An office appointment is not the time to "level" with the prof that you hate the course.
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