More Than One Way To Make the Grade

Sung-Ung Kim cracks the books at the University of Idaho library, something experts advise doing early in the day, rather than at night.
Sung-Ung Kim cracks the books at the University of Idaho library, something experts advise doing early in the day, rather than at night. (2005 Photo By Geoff Crimmins -- Moscow-pullman Daily News Via Associated Press)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Getting good grades in college these days is supposed to be easier than ever. But there are signs of grade deflation in the future. Princeton announced in spring 2005 that it planned to limit the number of A's awarded in any course to 35 percent of all grades, down from the old 50 percent rate in some courses. Other schools are talking tough about grades. Even in grade-inflated times, many students find that success in this part of the learning process is a mystery.

What is the secret? Experts say good time management, careful selection of courses, avoiding wasted effort and inquiring into what the professor really wants. Here are 10 ways to get college A's, as suggested by professors and former students who consider grade-grubbing an unfortunate label for the honorable effort to master the material. They say many of these methods will also work in a growing number of high school classes offered in the Washington region that aim for college-level rigor.

1. Go to class and take notes yourself.

This seems obvious, except there are so many ways these days to avoid class and still get some idea of what went on: a friend's e-mail, lecture note sales at the campus store, a look at the textbook. Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman, authors of the "Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College," warn that professional notes or the notes your roommate gave you in exchange for doing her laundry often leave out important material. They write: "Knowing you'll have to take notes is one of the main things that gets you to go to the lecture in the first place," which is important for other reasons.

2. Don't major in engineering.

Alexander W. Astin of UCLA and Leticia Oseguera of the University of California at Irvine examined the graduation rates of 56,818 students at 262 colleges and found several things, such as smoking, that did not correlate with college success. Among them was picking unusually demanding and precision-loving majors, particularly engineering, with exams that require the exact answer and not some lively written analysis of why exactitude is no longer applicable in a post-modern age. Of course, if you want to be an engineer and love precision, go for it.

3. Make a big event out of your most-feared academic tasks.

Cal Newport, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth College seeking a computer science doctorate at MIT, wrote "How to Become a Straight-A Student." He says a major barrier to good grades is the human instinct to delay big challenges, such as a major paper or a foot-high stack of reading. He recommends turning the chore into an important occasion, a big date with yourself. Pick a restaurant, coffee shop or cafe a long way from where you live, so you won't be tempted to go home right away. "You are sitting alone at a table in a public place, surrounded by strangers," Newport writes, "and if you don't start doing something soon, people will begin to wonder: Who is that odd student sitting alone and staring into space?"

4. Speak to your professors frequently.

At most campuses, professors and teaching assistants must have office hours during which they are available for questions. Jacobs and Hyman, professors themselves, say they find it a sign of interest -- not incompetence -- if a student shows up. Newport recommends making a habit of chatting with professors during the five or 10 minutes they hang around the podium after their lectures, which can happen only if you go to class. To get a good grade, and to enjoy the oft-overlooked byproduct of actually learning something, regular conversations with the people who are teaching the course and grading your work are very useful.

5. Don't shy from courses with lots of papers.

Some students don't like to write papers and prefer courses that rely on exams. But writing is an important life skill, and practice is essential. Also, Jacobs and Hyman write, "Taking courses that include papers will allow you the freedom to stagger your workload and avoid test overload."

6. Study in an isolated place as early in the day as you can, and do a five- to 10-minute break every hour.

People who save study for nighttime find, Newport writes, that "by the time you finish dinner, gather your materials, and finally begin your work, you really have only a few hours left before it becomes too late and your desire to sleep hijacks your concentration."

7. Use section meetings for more than getting to know attractive classmates.

The discussions are very helpful in understanding the course and raising your grades. Stay on topic, talk less if you are talking all the time and prepare for sections -- but apologize and pass if asked a question about which you have no clue. Jacobs and Hyman advise not to ask questions for the sake of it, and don't announce that you are not prepared.

8. Don't do all of your reading.

This is Newport's most shocking piece of advice. He writes that there are not enough hours in the day to cover all the reading that professors assign. Instead, focus on the reading that appears to be most important -- material written by sources the professor mentions often, material that makes an argument (crucial for exams) and material that can clear up points you find confusing in the lectures.

9. Before you start work on a paper, do the analysis in your head.

College students have a tendency to think they have to go to the library before they do any thinking about a paper topic, but the best papers tend to be those that grow from personal thoughts. Reflect on experiences you have had that relate to the topic. Kick it around with friends at dinner. Explore views you have heard on the topic that make no sense to you. Graders often give A's for original takes on old issues. The only place to find such fresh thinking is in your head.

10. Let experts look at drafts of a major paper.

First show the draft to your professor, and if he forbids that practice as too likely to overload his schedule, make sure to discuss the shape of your argument and your choice of sources during office hours. You can do this more than once with the same paper if you have developed a rapport with the professor, who, keep in mind, likes you because you always come to class. Also show your draft to smart friends. It would be best if they are in the same course, but if you have no friends there, pick people with some expertise in the subject and listen to what they say.

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