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How To Get Better Marks With Less Work

My student days seemed to be marked by a lot of hard work and anxiety to achieve marks, while some of my fellow students seemed to breeze through with spectacular marks.   Were they smarter than me?  Did they work harder? Some were likely smarter than me, but few worked harder.  Mostly they just worked smarter than me.  I finally figured it out long after the fact.  This article provides tips and observations that can help you improve your academic and professional success with less sweat. 

You Can Earn At Least 70% On Most Essays The Day You Receive The Assignment

For most essays and written assignments, you can often complete enough work to earn 70% of the mark within a few hours of receiving the assignment.  This is because most markers will give you at least 70% if you do the following:

  • Present a paper that is on topic.
  • Format the paper according to accepted style guidelines (Name and title in the right place, standard margins, footnotes, pagination, etc.).  The beauty of the computer age is that you create a good template right away so you don't need to worry about the format again.
  • Present enough information to indicate that you have read and understood the assignment.   Unless you have slept through all of the classes and have done none of the required reading, you can probably brainstorm for a few minutes and get at least the basic information down.
  • Avoid annoying the marker.  Sometimes it is useful to imagine reading your paper from the point of view of the marker, who usually would rather be doing almost anything other than mark a huge stack of student papers.  The following items will annoy most markers and cause them to downgrade your paper, no matter how inspired you think it is:
    • Being late.  Your late paper will cause them to be late and rushed.
    • Improper format.  Lack of attention to form suggest you do not take the assignment seriously.  Then why should the marker respect your paper?
    • Careless spelling and grammar.  It is difficult to be perfect, but it should not be sloppy.  Proofread yourself and try to have at least one other person to read it over.  It is very difficult to catch everything in your own writing.
    • FAILURE TO HEED ADVICE OFFERED ON THE LAST PAPER.  This was my favorite.  If I had spent less time being defensive about constructive comments offered by instructors and spent more time trying to understand the comments and make adjustments, my student career would have been much smoother.

I think you will find that you could do all of the above in a few hours.  If you draft the paper the day it is assigned (rather than the day it is due), then you will have lots of time to research, reflect, and refine to get the paper into the 80% to 100% range.   And if your work load, personal distractions, and unexpected crises prevent you from giving more attention to the assignment, you will at least have a respectable submission in the bag.

Aim High

In hindsight it seems that the better students assumed that they would need to sabotage their own efforts to get less than 90%, while the rest of us looked for some sort of special inspiration to get past 80%.  In this case, attitude and expectation can mean a lot!

Don't Confuse Hard Work With Achievement

I have observed in myself, students, and colleagues a tendency to confuse hard work and personal discomfort with accomplishment – "I stayed up all night for three nights in a row to complete that paper - I deserve way more than 70%!  The marker is not fair!".  While you may have put yourself through hell to complete the paper, the marker sees something that was handed in at the very last minute and looks like it was written by someone who hadn't slept in three days.   And given the three weeks or perhaps even three months you had to work on the paper, the sympathy level for your last minute efforts is not high!

In the context of work, the employee says, "I hate this job and I have been working overtime to keep up, I deserve way more money!"   The employer says, "She doesn't seem to like her job much and isn't very effective at it.  Maybe she should be doing something else!"

Here are a number of things we sometimes do that eat up lots of energy without being productive:

  • Resenting work because of the personal time that is given up.
  • Not enjoying personal time because of guilt over not being productive at work
  • Agonizing over a decision between equal choices
  • Procrastinating

The good news is, we can recognize and eliminate these efficiency drains.

Given Equal Choices, Random Is Often Good Enough

Sometimes we human beings seem to exert the most amount of energy and anguish over insignificant choices.  It is like we have an underlying belief that one choice always has to be better than the others.  And if the choice is not obvious, then more research and thought is required!  I suspect a few academic careers have evolved out of this tendency.  But what if it is simply a fact that the choices are more or less equal?  Why fuss?

By far the most efficient and content student, co-worker, and person I have ever known is my friend Lance.  We all have a lot to learn from his approach to daily challenges.

Have you ever gone into a restaurant and been overwhelmed by the choices?  All of the entrees look great, but none jump out at you as the one?   Well, Lance will quickly scan the menu to see if something inspires him.  If not, he will often say, "Well, the choices are all as good as each other.  I will pick one randomly from page three and enjoy the meal."

If the choices are equal and the consequences unimportant, make the choice quickly and move on.  Students often get stuck deciding which topic to choose for written assignments or for optional sections on exams.  Often it is best to decide quickly and simply get going before time runs out.

Look Before You Leap

If, however, it is important that you choose the best course of action, then random is not appropriate.  Again, most of us can learn something from Lance.

Lance is a brilliant software engineer.  Much of his efficiencycomes from his approach to problems.  When asked to do something, Lance will ask the following questions:

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • Why?
  • Have you considered alternative solutions?
  • Is this the reasonable thing to do?

Once he is satisfied that these questions have been answered, he will simply go ahead and implement the choice.  He will not spend any time or energy second guessing the choice to move ahead because he did the analysis up front. 

Now this approach may seem contrary to the random approach, but it is a process of identifying what is the most important and giving attention to that, rather than spending time and energy on insignificant items.

More Success With Less Work

I truly believe that we can all can be successful at the challenges of school and life in general if we learn to focus on what is important and reduce the time and energy spent on unimportant or counterproductive activities.

Have Fun! (Yes, it is possible to excel and have fun too!)

Greg Dixon

See also:

  • Review of The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan and Barry Buzan.  This technique may help come up with an abundance of ideas for your paper.
  • Review of First Things First by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill