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.

Titular control: how to pipe a perfect essay icing

In my book, I describe a clever title as the metaphorical icing on the cake that is your essay. Pretty and snazzy, titles set your essay apart from the rest. They are a chance for you to have fun and show off the nerdy side of you that your lecturers will love. And, they’re not hard. The basic formula for a good title is pretty easy to follow:

(Pun/double entendre): (Description of essay content, including language techniques such as metaphor, alliteration, listing, rhyme, etc)

So, an essay about cultural stereotypes in Disney films, for example, might be called:

Culture shock: casting a light on the stereotypes, symbolism and sectarianism that animate some of Disney’s best-loved characters.

Experiment. Have fun. Get a bit silly. But never submit an uniced essay. For a list of title puns and double entendres to spark your creativity, have a look here.

Cheating: an offence against society

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines ‘inventive’ as “having the ability to create or design new things or to think originally”. For a killer example of word usage ‘total fail’, go no further than this article, released today on, about cheating in NZ unis.

After outlining how unis are going to ‘crack down’ on cheating this year, the article offers “Roll of Shame”, a ranked list of unis in descending order of cases of academic misconduct in 2012. It then provides a list of some of 2012’s favoured strategies, which include: using iPhones in exams, taking in unauthorised notes (on paper, in calculators, on limbs), hiding notes in a toilet, forging medical certificates, trying to bribe markers.

Based on the article’s title, I’d expected a list of ingenious new cheating tactics. I had expected to learn a thing or two about cutting-edge cheating technology. I was disappointed. 2012’s cheating strategies are drearily the same as 2011’s, and 2010’s. They are the same sort of cheating strategies that have been around as long as there has been assessment to cheat in. The only differences in approach come from the new advantages afforded to cheaters through changing technology.

I was thrilled to be disappointed. While I’d hoped for news, I’d got none, and that means that the nature of a uni cheater remains unchanged. Cheaters aren’t inventive. They’re not creative masters of ingenuity, shrewd adapters of ‘the system’. Aside from the hypothetical few who construct intelligent ways to feign intelligence and get away with it (and who are therefore walking paradoxes who almost certainly don’t exist), cheaters are lazy, stupid and tediously unoriginal. They don’t (can’t? won’t?) think and put in place measures to ensure that they can still get the rewards that the real thinkers enjoy.

The article portrays UC as a little ruthless in its strategies for dealing with cheaters: administering $750 fines, sending cheaters to counselling and dishing out 25-hour community service sentences. As someone who put in 100% effort into every essay and exam I did during my BA, those consequences are totally inadequate. Cheaters see something that they want and, rather than working for it, simply take it. Cheating therefore defies the fundamental principles of what being a NZ citizen is all about. Cheating is an offence against society itself, and the consequences need to reflect that.

If I made the rules, I’d ensure that the penalty for first-time cheating would be forfeiture of any subsequent grade higher than a C. My penalty for anyone caught cheating again would be forfeiture of the right to study at any NZ university. Ruthless? Maybe. Unfair? Nope. Cheating is theft, pure and simple and the consequences for it need to reflect that reality.

What kind of student are you going to be?

Party animal.
Political activist.
Social butterfly.
Just there to get the qualification.
There for a good time.
Into as many clubs as possible.
Leader of a club.
Leader of the students’ association.

While people love to stereotype “the uni student”, there are – of course – many kinds. By now, you’ll have had a chance to witness some of them in action (admittedly, O-Week probably showcased some of them better than others) and you should have had a taster of the multitude of academic, cultural and social outlets available. By now, you should be getting a feel for which outlets are most attractive to you.

The unique joy of this time of the year is that you can choose. At uni, you can be whatever kind of student you want. It doesn’t matter who you were at school, or who your parents think you are, or who you are when you’re around your friends. At the end of the uni day, it’s you alone who decides whether to get up for that early lecture, it’s you alone who hits ‘send’ on your assignment, and it’s you alone who feels the joy or the burn of the results. 

The greatest gift of uni is the freedom to be whoever you want. Be who you want to be. And live your own student life accordingly.

The two very simple secrets to student success

I can hardly believe it. After six years of working alongside students from both high school and university, I have come to a startling discovery. It’s one that effectively renders BA: An Insider’s Guide – the entire book that I wrote on effective study skills – obsolete. Seriously, if you haven’t bought it yet, don’t even bother.

Why would I actively dissuade you from buying my product? Well, because I’ve just realised that a student’s success actually has nothing to do with how many classes you attend, how early you start your essays or how hard you study for your exams. All that it depends on is your ability to use two things. Two very simple, cheap, commonplace things.

To be a top student, you don’t need to know how to focus in lectures, read academic writing, or schmooze your lecturers. You don’t need to know how to use textbooks or study planners or fancy online learning tools. All you need to know how to use is: a) a pencil case and b) a semi-colon. The correct usage of these two items is the common link between all of the top students who I have ever known. I have years of observational evidence to back up my theory. I’m amazed that I haven’t discovered it earlier.

Budget for fun

With all this talk about recessions, debt and massive loans, it’s easy to convince yourself that students shouldn’t spend money on anything fun. Budgeting is great, but the whole point of it is to make sure that you can afford the things that you need.

You need fun. Everyone does, unless they want to become resentful and unmotivated. You need, therefore, to budget for fun.

How big your fun budget is depends, of course, on how much money you’ve got coming in. But everyone can afford to put a little aside each week. And no one should have to miss out on that long-awaited gig, that first Sevens weekend, or that summer road trip with friends just because they’re a poor student.

Budget for fun. And if that fails, beg, borrow or barter for it. Just make sure that it happens.

Making yourself employable

Reading this morning, I was struck by this article, about a recent uni graduate who’s now desperate for a job in the field that she studied in. Cherry struck a chord with me because her struggle is not in any way extraordinary. New graduates everywhere are in her position – newly qualified, highly skilled, willing to do anything, yet still out of work.

While we can’t help Cherry (unless anyone happens to know a digital media employer), we can learn a lot from her, and others in her position. I think that she hit the nail on the head when she said that, in terms of getting a job out of uni, “no matter how much knowledge I have picked up through studying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” She’s a prime example of how a degree is not a golden ticket to a job – as well as working hard on building your academic skills at uni, you have to work just as hard on building your networking skills. The sort of skills that get you noticed by people with clout in the working world. People who know people who can get you jobs. 

It all sounds very crafty, I know, but Cherry’s story is a timely reminder of how strategic new grads need to be if they’re going to stand a chance in today’s incredibly tough job market. Awesome grades are great, but they’re not enough anymore. Here are five easy things that you can start doing now to boost your chances of job success later.

1) Work experience. After having moved to Australia just for the opportunity to work for free, Cherry writes, “If I had real world experience as well as my education, I believe that I would have a much higher chance of being given the initial opportunity to prove myself.” She’s absolutely right – there’s no better way to prove your value to a position than by letting other people see you do it. But don’t expect other people to organise this for you. Get out there, sign up for everything, and don’t expect to get paid. Work experience gives you valuable CV material, priceless referees and a great insight into your chosen career.

2) Make the most of uni staff. I’m sure that I don’t have to remind you how much you’re paying to be a student. GET YOUR MONEY’S WORTH. The staff at uni aren’t just there to give you knowledge – if they were, they’d all have been out of a job when Google was invented. Never forget that they are highly respected members of their field of expertise, with great experience and fantastic contacts. Book a time to see them in their office hours. Talk to them about your academic interests and career goals. Email them for advice. Be assertive, positive and respectful. Don’t be stalkerish.

3) Revisit old contacts. Remember your favourite English teacher, who always believed in your brilliance? Well, I can almost guarantee that they still do, and would be happy to help you fulfill it in whatever way that they can. Same goes for past employers and managers of any organisations that you feel you’ve proved yourself in.

4) Make friends. Of course, having friends is important for lots of reasons. But the silver lining of a wider social circle is an increased chance of knowing someone who knows something about a potential opportunity. It’s fairly simple: the more people you know, the more info you get.

5) Live a balanced life. Get into stuff. New stuff. Take up a sport or a hobby, try your hand at volunteering, think about how you might be able to contribute to society. It doesn’t matter  if it’s relevant to your career path: employers always want to see well-rounded people with a broad range of skills. Plus, it can only help you with tip 4.