Saturday, 10 October 2009

How Do I Get Good Grades At University?

The questions 'how do I get good assignment grades' or how do I improve my marks comes up surprisingly often with university students. The puzzling thing is the way in which university students seem to overlook the clue in the title of their vocation.

Students are called students because they...wait for The origin of the word simply means 'one who is studying', which in turn means someone who is applying effort to gaining knowledge and understanding.

A significant number of students seem to assume that attending lectures and seminars is enough to provide them enough knowledge to achieve good grades. Frankly this is a gullible approach. Many also assume that they will 'told' all they need to know by the tutor. Gullible again.

Themes and issues in higher education are complicated and often ambiguous. This goes for the natural sciences too. The exciting elements of any subject are the frontiers where the answers aren't definitely known.

Getting to 'know' a topic takes time because there are no short cuts in reading. Further time is needed for the mind to process and ponder. Really understanding a topic means reading several sources, this obviously takes time too.

So often too students say they have a day 'free' when they are talking about self study time. Yet another clue in the title. Full time student spookily enough means 'full time.'

Good grades not only depend on understanding, them depend on analysis, and more importantly a clear ability to synthesise a range of perspectives, make sense of them and articulate the implications. The word 'because' is greatly underutilised. Students often assume the relevance and justification of their points is self evident.

Another crucial aspect of getting good grades at university is structuring your assignements well. This is a real 'knack' that comes with practice. If I could offer one piece of advice its to develop the skill of creating 'themes'. Significantly these only become apparent after reading several sources about a topic. Bad grades reveal limited reading not only in the depth of knowledge but the marked lack of any themes being identified and used.Assignment themes are 'bigger chunks' than the descriptive detail. They are the bigger grains that provide an assignment with a logical structure. See Chunking for more on this key process.

So what might themes look like. Some generic approaches seem to come up time and time again.

1.The Introduction Theme. Paradoxically whilst this is the first thing we read it is often better that it is the last thing that is written. This is because it should be a top level summary of what is to follow. It should also 'signpost' to the reader the key themes to be covered. e.g "I will approach this in 7 sections. Section 1 is..."

2. The Definitional Theme. You will be writing about a subject. It will be unlikely that this has one wholly accepted definition of what it is about. Different writers explain subjects in different ways. Show this.

The same might go for key concepts in the subject.

By doing this you a)show you have read, b) show you are critically aware, c)make good progress of wordage!

The Scope and Levels theme. Your subject will have boundaries. Where are they? Do writers agree? You subject can also be understood from different perspectives or levels of analysis. e.g. Macro, Meso, Micro. Culture, Society, Families, Individual, Behaviour, Mind, Brain, Neuro-chemistry.

The Trade Offs theme. Often things involve balancing two or more issues. They involve things that require a judgement. What are they? Strength versus Lightness, Control versus Creativity, Speed versus Quality etc.

The My Opion theme. Here you explain your position and why you take it. The quality of this theme will depend on how well read you are. If you talk about your opinion without justification this will get you good marks. In the UK this is known as the 'man in the pub answer.

The Concluding Theme. This is where you confirm how the subject has much more to it than meets the eye.

Obviously good grades will relate to specfic and correct calculations in natural sciences and other arithmetically specific disciplines, accurate points of law in legal subjects and technical accuracy where it is needed e.g. design and music.

Always refer to marking schemes. They are inavariably based on Blooms Taxonomy and you can use this generally to assess your own efforts. This is essentially a list of intellectual skills in ranking order. Regurgitated knowledge is less sophisticated compared to Synthesis of competing themes and ideas.

In the end you have two ways to get good grades at university. One is to copy the work of someone better than you. This is plagiarism or cheating and you will be caught and punished. The other way to get good grades at university is to think of an amount of time you are going to devote to reading for an assignment and multiply it by 4.

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