Getting back an exam or paper can be a rude awakening for college freshmen — students who received A’s in high school often get B’s and C’s in college, which can cause frustration and self-doubt.
While it may not be the best news for you or your transcript, this shift in grades is completely normal for many reasons.
Some high schools inflate grades (and egos), meaning that the average marks students receive tend to be on the high side. This practice is particularly common at private schools where students pay astronomical tuitions and the school prioritizes student and alumni satisfaction (not to mention college placement).
While some colleges are guilty of inflating grades too, others are known for their grade deflation, which means it is particularly tough for students to earn As. Boston University, where I teach, is number one on the list of schools where it’s most difficult to get an A.
Some schools go so far as to impose grading quotas — a suggested breakdown of final grades in a course (for example, 15–20 percent of students receive A’s, 30–35 percent receive B’s, 35–40 percent receive C’s, and the rest receive D’s and F’s).
There’s a reason a "C" is considered average — that’s the mark that most students get. Earning As is supposed to be difficult — and so is earning a college degree. These are thus supposed to be meaningful achievements. If everyone were to get As, GPAs wouldn’t mean anything. If everyone got college degrees, they wouldn’t mean much either.
College is a different learning environment than high school, and more will be expected of you. The same amount of effort won’t necessarily yield the same results at university. Completing assignments at the last minute won’t cut it; neither will forgoing studying. Certain classes are designed to be particularly hard. For example, Chemistry 101 is often a difficult course to weed out pre-med students who are not serious enough about this path. If you are struggling, it may likely mean that your study habits haven’t caught up with college standards.
Use the Noodle college search to see how demanding your school is, and ask questions to fnd out more.
Regardless of the reasons why your college grades are lower than you expected, the real question is: What can you do about it?
Getting an A in a writing class with no tests requires different strategies than getting an A in an exams-based calculus class. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but here are some useful strategies.
Getting a 4.0 in college is really difficult. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; but for some people (like me), getting an A in calculus may be outside the realm of possibility. Likewise, people who aren’t used to writing long papers probably won’t get A’s in literature classes.
Setting realistic goals is important. To do so, you can rank your classes according to difficulty. For instance, say I’m taking calculus, sociology, communications, and a writing seminar. My strengths are in language and expression, so I would shoot for A’s in communications and writing. Sociology would be between an A and B for me — if I get to write papers or take essay-based exams, I would shoot for an A. If there are three multiple choice tests, I’d probably shoot for a B+. As for calculus, I’d probably shoot for a B and perhaps refine my goal (up or down) after the first test.
After ranking your classes, you can then devote your time in accordance with these expectations. I would probably spend more time on my A goal classes because I know that if I put in the effort, I can get the grade. I would, of course, spend time on calculus, too, but because I think an A is out of range for me, I wouldn’t let it suck up all my time.
As much as it stings to get a C on a paper or test, think about how many assignments you will complete throughout college. A mediocre grade on one or even a handful of them won’t necessarily have a major impact on your GPA.
Freshman year is rough because your GPA comprises very few grades. If in one semester you receive an A-minus, a B-plus, a B, and a C, you’ll have a 3.00 GPA. But the next semester, say you get two A-minuses and two B’s. Your cumulative GPA would rise to a 3.175. The more grades you add to the mix, the less that C (and any individual exam or paper) will matter.
Freshman and sophomore years are usually full of general requirements. This means students may be taking classes they don’t necessarily want to take. Junior and senior years are composed of classes in your chosen major, which you’ll likely enjoy more and do better in, and that will in turn boost your cumulative GPA. By then, the C’s you got during freshman year will be long forgotten.
If you’re struggling with exams, stop by your professor’s office hours and ask whether she has any study tips. “If you were a student in this class, how would you study?" is a great question. If the problem is writing papers rather than preparing for tests, the same question can still be helpful. What strategies or approaches would the professor employ were she writing the paper?
For example, I often write the body of an essay first and then go back and write the introduction. I find it easier to articulate my argument after I’ve analyzed evidence and written about it for a while. I also read all of my essays out loud — if something sounds strange or feels awkward to say, it’s probably poorly written. Writers learn by example, so another tip would be to ask the professor for a sample essay or piece of writing that exemplifies the characteristics she is looking for.
It may seem obvious, but I’m always shocked when students sit silently in class. I understand that some students are shy or anxious about speaking during lecture, but when participation is a graded portion of the classes, students must make an extra effort. Not pushing yourself to participate will come back to bite you later in life when you will contend with meetings, interviews, and other situations that involve public speaking.
I have a student this semester who emailed me to explain that she’s very nervous about talking in class, and she wanted some suggestions for how to get more comfortable. We worked out a system in which she strives to raise her hand once per class — it doesn’t matter if she’s answering a question, asking one, or giving an opinion. If we’re discussing a reading, I’ll send her a quick email before class telling her some of the questions I’ll be asking about it so she can brainstorm a response ahead of time. If she keeps it up, this student will get an A in participation for the semester, which will help boost her grade — and her confidence.
Even when participation isn’t a specific part of the grade, it’s often the tiebreaker for students who are between grades. When students ask insightful questions and give thoughtful responses, they enhance the classroom experience for everyone — even the professor — which engenders both learning and goodwill.
Maybe in one of your classes, exams count for 75 percent of the final course grade. But what accounts for the other 25 percent? Participation, perhaps. Or maybe lab notes or a reading journal, paper drafts or a group project. Five percent of the final course grade in my writing classes is simply the timely submission of drafts and other ungraded assignments. Students often write off 5 percent here, 10 percent there, and focus instead on what’s weighted most heavily in a class. While it’s obviously in a student’s best interest to put in the time necessary to ace a final that’s worth a third of a final grade, those smaller percentages add up. These can be the difference between a B-minus and a B, or a B-plus and an A-minus.
If you are getting C’s on your assignments, you may have developed less-than-successful study habits. Or perhaps you’re clinging to high school routines that no longer work. That means it’s time to revamp your approach to learning. Here are some suggestions:
Make the material harder. Psychologist Robert Bjork wrote about the concept of desirable difficulty. In short, making your learning process a little more challenging can help you retain information for longer periods of time. If your study techniques are passive or don’t force you to work hard, you may just be going through the motions of studying instead of making an effort to commit the knowledge to your memory. Little modifications to your study practice, like putting your notes in a font that is harder to read, spacing out your study sessions so you have to make more of an effort to remember the content, or creating a puzzle using the material, will help you be able to recall the information long after your time at the library.
Vary the study environment. Research has shown that studying the same material in different settings can help you commit information to your memory. Researchers believe that this is because the setting you study in subconsciously affects the way you interpret information. If you study the same material in several different places, it means you will be creating new environmental connections with that material, and that will help you recall the knowledge later. So don’t just stick to studying in your room or at the library, look for other quiet spots like the kitchen, the quad, or even the laundry room.
Don’t spend hours on the same subject. Rotate subjects in a study session, or group together different subjects that require similar skills (e.g., writing a paper and studying for a literature exam, or reviewing history notes and preparing a presentation about the Industrial Revolution). Think of this as similar to athletic training — one wouldn’t spend three hours on the elliptical, right? It makes more sense to alternate weights, cardio, drills, and so on. The same concept applies to studying.
Don’t forget to take breaks. There are lots of reasons why taking breaks is a more effective strategy than plowing through tons of content for unending hours. Breaks can help restore your energy before returning to difficult content and can segment tough tasks into bite-sized, manageable chunks. There are apps that can even help you divide up your time and help you create a productive schedule.
Forget about cramming. The brain is like a sponge — at some point, it becomes saturated and can’t hold additional information. Retention takes time, and spacing out study sessions helps.
Read and write on paper — not on a computer, tablet, or other device. Our brains recall information better when we read on paper and when we handwrite our notes. Plus, annotating and highlighting help with retention, too. So print out those PDFs and purchase some notebooks!
Take practice tests. Tests help you figure out what you know, what you don’t know, and what you kind-of-sort-of know. Practice tests allow both for assessment and for further absorption of and addition to knowledge. Ask your professor whether you can have a copy of an old exam or quiz, or see whether your textbooks include exercises you can use to test your understanding. Better yet, create your own assessment, reverse-engineering questions Jeopardy-style. You can answer these during your next study session as a review.
Freshmen in college go from four years of familiarity with their high schools to a completely new learning environment full of novel expectations they may never have confronted before. Adjusting takes time and work, but before you know it, not only will your grades improve, but you’ll be reaching new intellectual heights and pushing yourself to master knowledge in ways you never dreamed of.
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