There are 3 steps to academic bliss (a.k.a. improving grades):
Step 1: Chose the right courses
Step 2: Picking the right tools
Step 3: Fine-tune your techniques
Instead of covering all three steps in one very long article, I will do three shorter articles instead. So to start off… Step 1: choosing the right courses.
The most critical step to getting good grades is ensuring you are taking the right courses. A class that plays on your strengths makes getting good marks easier and more fun. Conversely, a class that is both boring and hard can wreck your term and GPA.
Determining which courses to take can be simple or complex. In general, there are three types of courses students take: required courses, interesting courses, and choice courses. Required courses are well… required, either for a degree/program or another course. Students take interesting courses because they like it (these are usually far and few in between), and choice courses include everything else. For example, psychology might be a choice course for a science student who must take a certain number of arts credits. Likewise, an anthropology student may have a choice between medical and cultural anthropology. In the grand scheme of course selection, we are really only concerned with choice courses. Students must take required courses and it’s fairly easy to decide whether to take an interesting course. These two types of courses combined set a “baseline” for your GPA. Choosing the right choice courses will boost your average above this.
Before I go any further, I want to state that I believe anyone can do well in a course, even if that course is in a discipline you don’t believe you are good at. Therefore, do not let a course with hard reputation deter you from taking it if you really want to. However, if you have no great interest in the course, there is nothing wrong with taking an easier course. When I use the word easy (or hard), it implies “easier for you because it plays upon your strength”. Easy and hard are personal, not absolute, gauges of a course’s difficulty.
So just how do you pick the right choice courses for you? Follow these easy steps:
1. Obtain your transcript (unofficial is fine) for all of your years at a post-secondary institution, especially those at your current school.
2. Look at your average for each term. Then note down all of the courses you achieved above average and below average for that grade reporting session.
3. In which courses were you obtaining the highest marks? It is entirely possible you are achieving the highest grades on all of your required courses. In that case, you are either in a major that is perfect for you or you are not using your choice courses to boost your grades as effectively as you can.
4. Look at your top 5 grades (top 2 if you are in first year) and think back to those courses. Did they require a lot of memorization? Lots of problem solving? Abstraction and big picture thinking? Creative interpretation? Essay writing? Formal reports? See if you can find a common thread or a characteristic that is common to most if not all of those courses.
5. Repeat step 4 for your bottom 5 grades.
Steps 4 and 5 should give you an idea of your strength and weaknesses. For example, I have obtained the highest grades on courses that required some understanding and then problem solving. I’m not as good at courses that are mostly memorization or courses with poorly defined course objectives. The more specific you are with your strength and weaknesses, the better.
6. Look deeper at the courses you did well in and think about the exams. Were the exams much more difficult or easier than the rest of the course? Did they feel really “tight” time-wise? Did the prof employ heavy scaling and did that benefit you? Did the course give you a good idea of how the exam was going to go (or was it completely out of the blue)? Are the midterms in class or at night? Are you a better exam taker if you write an exam during certain times?
As exams make up the most part of a course, step 6 should tell you which exam conditions best suit you. For example, I do best in exams with fairly comfortable and questions that are like those encountered during class. I’m not as good in exams that have unexpected questions and not enough time, or those that place emphasis on details (nerves!). If you are picking between a few equally appealing courses, knowing the exam conditions might help you eliminate a few choices. If possible, find courses with exam conditions that are favourable for you.
Step 5 will tell you what kind of courses you might want to try. If you are good at memorization, try something in biology, psychology, history, or the languages. If you’re a very abstract thinker, try some philosophy or higher level math or physics. If you like problem solving, stick to math, chemistry, or classical physics. If you excel at writing essays and papers, try English. Narrow down a list of courses that are good fits for you, not the other way around. Normally when studying, students fit their study strategies to the courses they are taking. That works well, however, isn’t it better to find ones that are perfect for you without extra effort?
Ultimately, the Golden rule of course selection is simple: play on your strength. The above steps present a systematic approach to figuring out what those strengths are and will hopefully help you pick courses that emphasize your strong suits.
Next Up: Picking the right tools…