How to deal with “that” student

He never studies or buys textbooks, but aces every test. Don’t let him drive you nuts


Got a great question by mail about a week ago. I’ve been saving it for a proper reply.

I just finished my first semester at [university], and I worked my ass off; I studied hard for the tests and assignments, I got good grades and stayed home on nights I would have dearly loved to have gone out partying. It paid off; I still ended up with an 84% average.

One of my fellow classmates, who I’ve become pretty good friends with, never shows up to school, never studies and never opens his textbooks. He actually didn’t even buy half the textbooks he should have. The days he does come to school, he doesn’t even go to class but instead sits in the caf all day drinking coffee. And yet, he still ended up with a 98% average this semester!

How does someone like myself deal with this sort of person?? He drives me nuts. It’s not fair that he can do that so easily and the rest of us have to work like slaves, and still not do as well as him.

This question brings a lot of things to mind, and none of them are straight-up solutions. I’ll just throw everything I can think of at the issue and hope something helps.

First off, when dealing with someone who seems to have everything come too easy, don’t be too quick to take everything you hear about it on faith. Sometimes students flat out lie about their grades. Why I can’t guess, when there’s no obligation to talk about it in the first place, but some do anyway. Even more commonly students exaggerate and tell stories about their work habits that aren’t really true. Some students seem to be studying all the time when it isn’t genuine and some are just the opposite. Someone who is trying to portray and preserve a slacker image may claim to throw his papers together at the last minute, but are you sure it’s true? Maybe he stays up all night working and simply doesn’t admit to it. It’s hard to be sure.

None of this is to say your information in this case isn’t accurate. It may well be true, and in fact I’ll assume it is for the rest of my answer. But it’s good to remember that you can’t really guess, in the majority of cases, what’s going on with other students. It’s just like the classic story where the family next door seems to be perfect but once you know what’s really going on you realize how good you have it.

This leads me around to a thought or two on the subject of “fair.” Wow, what a terrifying subject. Somewhere in the world right now there are 12-year-old soldiers who simply dream of the chance to even see the inside of a classroom again. I don’t mean to belittle your concerns by pointing this out, but the idea of fair and unfair is something I barely know how to talk about. Which one of us has it better than the next person, anyway?

The kind of math it would take to add it all up, and to balance all of my advantages and challenges against those of another person, is just too much. So I try not to do it at all. I try to be thankful for my blessings and remember those who are clearly less fortunate but I sure don’t stay awake at night worrying about those who have it “better” than I do. I think about all the things I can’t know about them instead. Sometimes it’s tempting to look at just one thing and pretend that’s all that matters, and the concept of “fair” can be focused just on this one point alone, but obviously that’s untrue. Remembering this helps keep me balanced.

So moving away from the idea of what’s “fair,” I’ll say the real issue is how to stay motivated around people who seem to get everything too easily. I think that’s what you really meant, after all. This isn’t an existential crisis about fairness in the universe – it’s a question of how to avoid having this affect your own attitude in school. And that’s a very good question indeed.

In order to stay motivated, I’ll suggest that you’re learning a lot more in school than just what you need to know for the next test. It isn’t only about the grade you receive – there really is something important in how you get there. You learn work ethic along with composition. You learn time management just as you’re sitting up all night studying for an exam. These skills are important. No one can surf through life on pure ability alone. Some can surf through school on that basis – I won’t lie to you. But they don’t necessarily emerge better prepared for the “real world” after doing so.

People have a variety of different aptitudes. Even what we tend to call “intelligence” is a very mushy concept. It’s just a collection of various talents that we privilege for no good reason over other talents. Some people can chew right through a test but can’t figure out people to save their lives. Some can memorize a textbook but can’t produce original work. Some are good at writing and manage to cover weak research with smooth prose. I’ve been guilty of that last one myself.

In the end, though, when you’re out in the professional world you’ll have to call on a variety of skills to succeed and they aren’t necessarily the ones that get you the highest grades in school. In your case, it seems like you’re developing your work ethic a lot, in order to shore up whatever difficulties you have with the material you’re learning. It’s paying off, clearly. Your grades are good. But are you sure your friend whose grades are great is really doing “better” than you are? Sure, he’s topping you in an academic sense. But I suspect the skills you are developing will serve you better in the long run.

Mostly, the best advice I can give you is advice you seem to already be heeding. Don’t take it personally. Stay friends with the guy. The world is full of people we can spend our time comparing ourselves to and competing with. Sometimes comparison and competition is healthy, but it shouldn’t get in the way of our friendships or social interactions. That’s the point at which it’s very clearly unhealthy.

Sounds to me like you’re doing fine. Keep it up. And have a great holiday break.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.

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How to deal with “that” student

  1. I think your answer was great Jeff. Ultimately, life is not about comparing yourself to everyone around you, but making peace with who you are and what you’ve got.

    I noticed the writer seems to be in first year (semester) so presumably his/her friend is too. In that case, you could remind the student that it’s a transition year, and you can’t always know what each person is transitioning from.

    Maybe this friend went to a very challenging high school or was in a gifted/AP program and has actually already learned all the material covered in the first semester. Maybe the friend has the kind of parents that insist their children take prep courses in the summer instead of working, because school is their job. Maybe the friend takes care of his social needs during the day, when the caf is full, and then is a night owl when it comes to learning. You’re right to say that many students downplay how much studying they really do. And, sometimes over-achievers can be the worst for feeling the pressures associated with trying and failing. Better that he give the impression he “never studies” rather than find himself in a situation where others knew he tried and failed.

    If it’s any consolation to the student, he’s learning valuable skills now that will help him through the more challenging courses later. Most students for whom school comes naturally eventually hit a wall (even if that’s later, outside of school) when things don’t just come naturally anymore and they do have to rely on discipline and perseverance in the face of challenge. At least this student is learning that now in the safety of first year and not in the first weeks of a high stress, high paying job for which he was recruited based on stellar academic achievement.

    And, there are all kinds of possible scenarios in which the 98% student is actually the one getting the raw end of the deal. Is it “fair” that one student is paying for courses when he might not be learning anything new? Is it fair that other students, like the writer of the question, are actually learning content and skills while the other student is perhaps paying for courses that are too easy and therefore not giving him an opportunity to practice discipline and time management?

    Is it fair that a student who learned first year material in high school goes to university and achieves ridiculously high marks only to find that, when faced with new learning in second year, the unexpected inability to repeat near-perfect grades makes good or just average achievement feel like failure? Is it fair that this student would then have to justify to his parents that he is not slacking off, or begin to doubt himself when everyone else’s grades around him go up in second year because last year was their adjustment year? Is it fair that people will think that his first year was just a fluke and secretly find satisfaction in his “failure?” And, if this student is stuck in courses that are way too easy (based on prior learning, natural intelligence or any other reason) and is forced to spend his days in the caf just for some mental stimulation, is it fair that he is is the target of jealousy among those whom he calls his friends?

    There is no shortage of ways to find unfairness if you go looking for it. That’s why your initial advice to quit looking was spot on.

    As for not buying all the required textbooks, maybe the friend is not the first kid in his family to go to university and therefore he knows that half of them are never used anyway! :)

  2. Pingback: What’s “fair” when it comes to learning?

  3. Another point: if the student REALLY is that talented? Stay friends, they’ll take you out in their ferarri someday ;)

  4. Sarah, I don’t think Jeff was suggesting that the emailer be, to use an ugly synonym, complacent. Not at all. Instead, he seems to be saying that he should be building skills that will be more useful than those of his friend’s; that he should be contented by some future where he is better by comparison.

    Also, I was very surprised to see a post not about the inherent intelligence of a chosen few, and how we can only dream about surpassing them. To me, this is unhelpful and untrue, but it underlies so much of our ideas about education.

    Take math. The idea that math is only for Asians is so prevalent it’s maddening. And that simple belief has caused so many people, at least a my school, to not even attempt a math problem, let alone try to master a course’s worth of material.

    Of course, what this comes down to is the battle between innate intelligence–(I changed the subject completely, but this is a totally awesome thread well-worth pursuing, Jeff!)–and malleable intelligence. And the idea of innate intelligence and its incredible effects on our education system are incredible. Streaming, the division of a class into an essentially self-reinforcing caste system, is one of the greatest travesties of this century! If anyone here has gone to a I.B. sponsored school, they’ll know what I mean from experience. Inevitably, the applied, or lowest, rung end up all in the basement (of the school–the tech. class) and, eventually, BK, or, if they’re lucky, college. Half of the academic stream will end up in college, the other half in university. And all the I.B. students will go to university. Now, does anyone ever wonder why this happens? Many reasons, but I’ll list them as I can think of them. One, a culture of underachievement, reinforced by their darn positioning, prescribed by the school, and perhaps their friends. Two, the best teachers are, guess what, the ones at the highest rungs! The worst, most uninterested fools are the ones teaching applied and academic. Is it any wonder these kids don’t get into university? Or end up just as apathetic as their teachers? Three–I can’t think of a third, but those are pretty good reasons by themselves.

    Lest you think that it’s easy to go between these streams, I shall prove to you it is not. Grade 9 is about the only time movement between them is easy, but if you don’t have parents to guide you, or counsellors that are so noncommital as to discredit their name, that opportunity can be easily wasted. Once you’re into grade 10, only can through great obstacles can a grade 10 applied student move into the academic stream. (And you can forget about I.B.)

    The point of this rant is to say, if you believe you can’t improve, because you’re a natural disadvantage, you won’t. You believe you can, you will, most assuredly.

  5. Great response. But as someone who has sat on the other side, marking papers, I also know that some students are spending an awful lot of time doing the wrong things. I recall one student of mine in particular who was clearly working very hard, reading more than others for her essays, etc. And yet the essays themselves were only C to B worthy. I had her come to my office hour and we talked about what exactly I was looking for in an A essay and how that differed from what she was doing. I talked to her about how she didn’t have to read quite as much as she was but she had to do more with it in the essay. Her marks jumped substantially after this conversation.

    So, while agreeing that there is no point in focusing on how others are doing, if a student is not satisfied with the marks s/he is getting (particularly in relation to the work put in), it might be a good idea to go see the professor in their office hours and ask them for advice on what s/he could be doing to improve her marks. Do not go in challenging the grades or being defensive, but with a genuine enquiry about what you could be doing better.

  6. I think Jo’s response is exactly right. To get an A+ on an evaluation, you need to deliver precisely what your instructors expect.

    In my experience, good students differ from bad students in having a knack for figuring out what their instructors expect from them and in delivering precisely what they are expecting.

    In developing assignments, problem sets, tests and exams, no matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid introducing a certain amount of arbitrariness into our evaluation criteria. Good students know that there is no “true” answer to a problem or question posed by their instructor: there’s only the answer that instructors expect, and all other answers are wrong to some degree.

    The instructor’s expected “right answer” is composed of a few things:

    1) The actual answer. E.G. if the question is what’s 2 + 2, the answer is 4.

    2) The way the answer is expressed. E.G. if the question is posed as “what’s 2.0 + 2.0”, the instructor may expect “4.0” as the answer, and decide that “4” or “4.00” are not exactly right.

    3) The way the justification for the answer is expressed. E.G. if the question is posed as “what’s 2.0 + 2.0”, it may be that the instructor wants you to think about the fact that there are two significant digits. So, the instructor would expect the justification to be something like “because the sum has two significant figures and no rounding must be done.”

    One rule-of-thumb is to try to learn the vocabulary, turns of phrases, etc., that your instructor uses, and repeat them on your test. They will believe your *thinking* is like their own and, therefore, must be correct.

    You may think Thing 3 above doesn’t apply to math, physics, computer science, etc. You would be very, very wrong: most instructors are not talented enough to recognize original derivations or proofs in familiar items — unless you go to MIT, Harvard, CalTech, etc. (no, not UofT).

    Good luck!

  7. this could be what some people refere to as a “poser” its usually ued for someone who dresses, acts, talks and says he or she is a certain way but usually i not like a skateboarder who cant do an single trick but is decked out in full skater wear, if this student doesnt ever come to school what is he doing? possible you just dont see him or its possible that he doesnt like sitting in a class for 6 hours so he gets notes from a friend and learn off them at home, this show he is gifted in intelligance but he isnt passing up learning the material hes just doing it his way The textbook deal, is probably nothing either the textbooks dont matter or he borrows them. 98 percent! i dont belive that one bit becasue how would he hand in any project if he wasnt there when it was assigned. What you described is a super genius with amazing ability to memorize and has definatly been taught certain information before. And even that i a bit unbelivible. In university you need to listen and go to most classes in order to get a 98 if you friend is truly what he is described to be then i have no doubt that he is the smartest person in terms of memory and book smarts that ever lived. lol also consider an apretership they are good for marks and dont require you to go to school for basicly a whole term

  8. Although this isn’t directly on topic, I think I’ll start by doing a quick reply to Boomr’s post.

    While I don’t think streaming in the sense you describe it is necessarily the correct approach, I don’t think that some type of streaming is wrong per se. As others allude to with regard to the original post, is it any more fair to force more advanced students to waste time covering material that they already know? Or to make them cover material that they have foreknowledge of or an aptitude for at the same pace as those in the class who don’t? Wouldn’t it be better to allow the students who can move ahead faster the ability to do so, and allow those who are having more difficulty to spend more time working on the basics? Better than streaming, I think, is, at the school level to eliminate the concept of grade years. If a student reads at a grade 4 level, and does math at a grade 7 level, then that student should be in a grade 4 reading class and a grade 7 math class, not, say, grade 5. At the university level, you could achieve similar results by making it easier to waive prerequisites of classes, or offering comprehensive placement tests to make sure students end up in appropriate classes, particularly in first year.

    The problem with streaming as it stands now is not necessarily that students in non-academic streams don’t end up in university per se, as I see it, it is, as you note, that the non-academic streams tend to get less experienced teachers (I won’t say worse necessarily, because such choices are probably determined exclusively by seniority under the current system), when in reality, it is probably better to put the best/most experienced teachers in the non-academic streams to try to provide additional support, and leave the academic classes more freedom for open learning. Arguing that the students that don’t go into the academic streams don’t end up at university, generally, is exactly what streaming is intended to do, so that’s hardly a fault. Streaming, one could argue, is a more pragmatic system, because it acknowledges that not everyone should be attending university, and tailors the skills learned by students who won’t be attending better towards the careers they will pursue. At best, it is a far more efficient use of limited resources than trying to teach the same material to students of dramatically different abilities; at worst, it forces students into making career/academic choices before they are ready to take such things seriously.

    I’m not sure what schools you’ve been going to, but if people are not attempting math courses (let alone individual problems!) simply because they feel that math is only for Asians, then I think there are much bigger problems to deal with than whether or not streaming is appropriate.

  9. On the note of textbooks, by the time I reached third year, I would say probably a third of my textbooks I had never broken the spine on, another third I had only used to get homework problems from, and a final third were actually useful or necessary for the course. From that point on, I didn’t buy the text until a few weeks in to the lecture where I could make the decision of whether or not I needed it, or could just take it out of the library every so often for reference.

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