Trying harder - Macleans.ca

Trying harder

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So my last entry was about grades you don’t like and how to respond to them.  Seems like a good time of the year for that advice, since we’re all getting grades back and inevitably a sizable percentage of us don’t like those grades.  Now the next obvious question is what to do about those grades.  Even assuming you take ownership of the problem and want to improve, how exactly are you going to do that?

I won’t try to summarize all the positive advice I can think of into a single blog entry.  Entire books have been written on the subject (including my own) so it’s simplistic beyond reason to offer fast and easy answers.  The real truth is that every effective solution is an individual one.  That’s why it might be useful to read a book like mine, that encourages you to really think about your individual circumstances and to question your priorities.  You can also speak with an academic advisor at your institution, and that’s probably a very good investment of your time.  Or even just sit down with a pen and paper and try to write through your situation.  More often than not that’s what I do, when I need to get a grip.  Writing it all down forces you to go slowly, and to articulate every stage of your thinking.  It keeps you from skimming over the tough bits, and allowing yourself to assume you’ve got it figured out when you really haven’t.

I’m not going to give you throw-away advice about how to improve on your grades and your performance in school because not only is that not helpful, it’s the complete opposite of helpful and entirely counter-productive.  It’s better to not have a clue how to solve your problems and at least realize you don’t have a clue, than to swallow some simplistic advice and think you’ve got it all solved when you don’t.  That’s the academic equivalent of fad dieting.  All you get out of that is a downward spiral of failure and self-recrimination.

A friend once explained to me the danger of fad diets, and why they are so seductive.  This is a trained psychologist who deals with these problems, and knows far more about it than I do, so I hope I don’t butcher this idea.  If I do, I apologize to her in advance.  The gist of it is that the mere decision to act is very empowering and exciting, at least for a little while.  You ride a wave of resolve that stems from the initial decision to do something (no matter how kooky or ineffective) and that feels really good.  So things do look better, at least in the short term.  But if you haven’t changed the fundamentals it can’t last.  And when you fall off the horse, the additional sting of failure puts you in a worse position than you were before.

I swear I see this same thing among students.  That’s where I see the famous “try harder” approach to academic problems.  It feels really good, doesn’t it, when you resolve to try harder?  You wake up in the morning, and you stare into the mirror, and you promise yourself that this term is going to be different.  That feeling of resolve is very empowering – for a little while.  But on it’s own that can’t last.

Here’s an ugly secret.  No one really thinks they are trying as hard as they can.  We all imagine we could get better grades if only we applied more, studied harder, watched less TV, and woke up a bit earlier in the morning.  And in a sense it’s all true.  But it takes more than resolve to turn that around.  You need a plan and a way to stick to it.  You need to figure out what things in your life are going to change and then you need to change them.  To be clear here, you need a lot more than that abstract resolution to “try harder.”  Making that decision can be the start of the solution, but it’s only the start.

If you need to turn around your academic performance, and you’re serious about it, don’t just look in the mirror.  Make an appointment to see an advisor.  Go see your professor during office hours.  Join or form a study group.  Change your study habits and go where there are fewer distractions.  Disconnect the Internet when you’re working.  Turn off your phone.  Change your sleep schedule.  Do something – anything – that might work, just so long as it represents a concrete change and not an abstract feeling.  And if that doesn’t work then try something else.  You may not get it right the first time, but you can always try again.

Every solution is going to be an individual one.  You know yourself better than anyone else does, and chances are you already know what has to change, but it isn’t something you want to give up.  Maybe you spend most evenings with your boy/girlfriend.  Maybe you spend way too much time on a favorite video game.  Confront the real problem, and don’t plaster over it with some promise to try harder.  Trying harder means confronting the things that are in your way, not just working around them.

Good luck with the new term.

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