Matters of opinion

What sets a top student apart from an average one? What is it about those two or three essays in the stack of hundreds that sing out? What exactly is the difference between a pass and a fail? A B+ and an A? An A and an A+?

Over the past few years, I’ve supported all sorts of students to set all sorts of academic goals. Most want to pass everything they need to get a qualification. Many want to meet a certain standard – Merit Endorsement, B+ average for Honours, that sort of thing. A few want to get top marks. As a teacher, it’s been my job to help them turn vague dreams into clear plans by setting goals that we can measure and achieve. That experience has left me with the following beliefs:

1) Anyone can pass any reasonable Art-based subject, provided that they are able to follow instructions, record and recall information, read for information and produce structured, evidence-based responses to set topics.

2) Most people are able to do very well in any subject, provided that they are willing to put extra time and effort into thoroughly researching their topic, developing their answers, providing more examples, and presenting their work with pride.

3) Many people are able to get top marks in a subject, but very few ever will. This is because doing so requires something unique: critical thought (aka your own opinion) and the ability to express that thought in a clear, interesting way. If you don’t have that – the ability to question, challenge, offer alternatives – then no amount of extra work is going to boost your marks. You might do very well, but you’ll never really shine.

Contrary to popular belief, people who think independently and critically aren’t necessarily innately smarter in any objective sense. They just work their brains harder. Sure, they might have a genetic advantage – like a runner born with long legs – but you don’t win a race at the Olympics without making rigorous training a central part of your lifestyle.

Most people don’t push themselves to form and express their own opinions. Some are lazy – it’s far less taxing to take on someone else’s opinion than have your own. Some don’t realise it’s possible – they don’t know of any other way of thinking. Most, though, are afraid. They’re scared to think for themselves because in doing so they would set themselves apart and open themselves up to judgement.

If getting top marks is one of your goals, you need a training regime for your brain. The first step is identifying the beliefs that have held you back from developing and fully expressing your own opinion in the past. Then you need to convince yourself that they’re just that – beliefs that can be updated if you choose. As for how to form and effectively express an original opinion – I’ll deal with that in my next post.

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