Less Beaten By Grades – How My Failing Grade Became a B+


School Is Hard… Sometimes

One of the most liberating things about going back to school is, I don’t care. Not in the same way anyway. In junior high and high school you’re taught grades are super important. They’re what’ll get you into the top schools, etc. Well, then there’s that old joke: Q: What do you call the person that graduates last in class at medical school? A: Doctor. There’s some logic to this though. Unless you’re trying to get into the best school, or get a scholarship, or place for grad school, your GPA doesn’t really follow you.

Learning or Math?

Eventually you realize that what matters is checking the boxes. This is even more true for adults returning to college. I’m going for a degree in a field I’ve worked in for about twenty years. I know what does and doesn’t matter to my job. I know how to keep context and general knowledge of subjects and dive in and learn when it becomes necessary. So now, I’m just collecting points to unlock the achievement of a degree. This is an interesting and liberating way to approach an “education”. 

What I’ll do with my classes is take a look at the syllabus, and determine the grading structure. Depending on the complexity, I’ll create a simple Excel spreadsheet to help me calculate my grade.  The website for the classes is supposed to do that, but I’ve found most of my teachers have struggles with the site and often there are assignments in the grading list that aren’t actually included in the class, so they can throw off the auto grade. This method also lets me model what grade I need on a given assignment in order to reach my desired outcome.

Let’s See It In Action

This has worked to great effect for me and helps me limit my stress and time spent on courses. One of the first classes I took when going back to school was brief calculus. It was a fun course and in general I don’t struggle with math but  the workload was rather heavy. I used a lot of online calculators to help me learn and reverse engineer homework problems. What really bit me was when we started doing derivatives and anti-derivatives with log, complex exponents, and e. What those included was a whole lot of memorization of special rules on how those special numbers and constants were handled. The course took a lot of time, and I knew it wasn’t directly  related to my work. I identified this course as something that I needed to check the box on and not master. So I began to implement strategy in how I completed it.  I understood the concepts in general, but I would use online calculators to help me speed through and to help validate my homework so I could get the most points possible on those assignments. I still had tests where I couldn’t use those calculators so I had to have some level of mastery, but I wasn’t willing to give up ALL of my spare time to this course that was largely irrelevant. 

Fast forward to the final. It’s thanksgiving week, I’m cruising at a low B and just want to be done with this course. All I have left are the final pre-test and the final itself. The pre-test wasn’t proctored and counted towards the final grade. The final was remote-proctored. So, I went through the pre-test, got my score, and plugged it into my grading spreadsheet. I was a little lower than I wanted. I’d have to get around a 60% on my final to stay in a passing grade. So I took the pre-test one more time, bumped the grade up about 10% and then ran the numbers. All I’d need is a 50% to have my C. So, I decided that was enough effort for this class. I took my final, got a 54% and passed the course with a C. Sure, for a lot of people a C isn’t a great grade, but my goals were to get credit and do so with minimal effort. I have no doubt that I could’ve put in more effort and gotten a higher grade, but that wasn’t my goal, and this was the highest math required for my degree and well beyond what my job calls for. Done and done!

What About That B+ In The Title?

Since then, I’ve been running the numbers game on all of my courses. I’ve learned a few things. One of the most important is GET EVERY SINGLE EASY POINT YOU CAN. Put more effort into the early work in the class. A lot of times they are the easiest assignments but still carry the same weight as later assignments. Get those easy points. Is there extra credit? Do it. What this does is gives you more room at the end of the class, when things are harder and you’re ready to be done with the subject. The course at hand here was a statistics course. I was really excited by taking statistics, I’m a nerd. Unfortunately, the class structure used by my instructor didn’t fit my learning style. It was all lecture, there was no textbook, and the teacher was extremely pedantic and particular about his definitions. It was as much a writing class as it was math.

Half of the homework was auto-graded instantly (the numbers versus the written portions) an allowed for unlimited attempts to get it right. I didn’t watch all the lectures because I learn better from reading and doing and this guy had a LOT of lectures. I just didn’t have the time. The first test came and I got a 60%. I lost out on a bunch of his pedantic wording that I skipped in lecture and wasn’t really focused on in the homework. This had just become a checkbox class. Time to play for points versus learning. 

From there out, I grabbed EVERY SINGLE POINT I could on homework. They were instant feedback and something I could take to the bank. The grading structure was extremely ambiguous from the syllabus and the instructor was WAY behind on grading. I needed to just accumulate as many known good points as possible. This is how I attacked all the homework. My test scores continued to be in the 60% range, but my homework was in the 95%+ range. 

Again, I was facing a final and just wanted a passing grade. I was willing to take a D in this course. The instruction was just terrible and I wanted to be done with it. This time, I couldn’t even do a spreadsheet to calculate my grade. My instructor was horribly behind with homework. I was going in rather blind and not too confident. The syllabus did mention the lowest homework grade would be thrown out, so, I skipped the last homework (we’re playing for points here and that effort just wasn’t needed). I dove in and took the final. Then, there was an extra credit assignment after the final. I did it too of course. Preliminary grades on my final were in the 25% range, but that was only the questions that could be auto-graded. Slowly the instructor got caught up on grading. Homework was completed and the final was graded. A question was even thrown out of the final. I nervously watched my grade grow over the next week. Once I crossed 60% in the course I breathed a sigh of relief. But it kept going up. In the end, when I was praying for enough points to get a D, I ended up getting a B+. Grabbing all the extra points clearly  paid off. When you focus on the return of points to effort versus overall grade, you can get a  lot better return on your time spent by playing for grade.

Image Credits: Wesley Fryer

2 Comments on “Less Beaten By Grades – How My Failing Grade Became a B+”

  1. Oh man, I hated derivatives. One of the worst offenders in math education for trick questions. Glad you’re getting away with it, I bailed and now I am paying down loans with nothing to show.

    On a related note, today is the day I cord-cutted. $90/mo for 150 from Comcast vs $230+ before. Google Fiber, please come to Indy.

    1. Yeah, if work weren’t paying for college, I wouldn’t be spending my time on it. I actually found calculus interesting but the rules memorization just wasn’t for me.

      As for the cord cutting, congratulations. Gave yourself an early Christmas present! I’m desperate for competition in the local broadband market as well. šŸ™

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