Ask the Doctor: Learning from poor grades

Hi everyone, “the Doctor’ here, this time I’m going to look at revision of work that has received a disappointing mark. I hope this will be timely because many of you will, by now, have received the marks for your first assignment and possibly been disappointed by the grade you have been awarded.

However, don’t despair, as help is at hand!

Why might my grade be lower than I expected?

Teacher offering feedback to pupilFirst and foremost, university grades are marked very differently from school. As a quick guide, UK undergraduate grades are as follows:

  • 70+  = 1st
  • 60 – 69  = 2.1
  • 50 – 59 = 2.2
  • 45 – 49 = pass
  • Below 40 = fail

From this, you can easily see how much lower marks are at this level and how small a gap exists between them.

So, if you were accustomed to receiving marks in the 80-90% bracket at school, you are bound to be disappointed to receive, say, 60% now. However, as this would put you in the 2.1 zone, then you shouldn’t worry at all.

How can I improve my grade?

The first and most important thing to do is to look at the comments your tutor has made on your work.

If there is anything that you don’t understand or with which you disagree, try to make an appointment to see your tutor to discuss your concerns.

You should never be afraid to seek help, that’s what tutors are there for, but remember that they are busy people with a lot of students to look after, so be patient and courteous when you approach them – politeness always pays off!

After you have seen your tutor, you should have a clearer idea of how you can build on their comments to improve your work.

I’m still puzzled – what can I do on my own?

Student reading a bookI wanted to address this because a major problem with changing up from school to university level is that students don’t understand how much independent study is required.

At school, it is likely that by comparison with university you were “spoon-fed’ information regarding completing assignments.

As you will have gathered, this doesn’t happen at university.

You are expected to:

  • Find sources
  • Apply them appropriately
  • Construct work correctly
  • Use information given to you effectively.

For all these reasons, it is a very positive sign that you want to know how best to improve your work by yourself!

So, take on board any advice you have been given but build on it by:

  • Looking for more and better sources
  • Using them more constructively
  • Interweaving resources and ideas in your work
  • Strengthening your argument.

This may seem a great deal to absorb at once but just take it one step at a time and it won’t seem so overwhelming.

Any other tips to offer?

Teacher discussing with studentsYes, too many to go into right now! However, here are a few that will make a big difference in improving your grade straight away:

  • Make sure you are answering the question as set
  • Sharpen your focus and structure
  • Use resources widely and well
  • Reference everything you write in the required style
  • Analyse evidence critically
  • Proof-read carefully
  • Ensure that your spelling and grammar are spot-on every time.

All of the above points seem obvious but failure to do any or all of them thoroughly can really make a big difference to your grade.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be at all disheartened by a grade which is below what you had hoped. We have all had times when we think we have completed a really good piece of work only to discover that someone else – i.e. the person marking our work – disagrees. In fact, this often happens, especially when we have really tried.

The thing to do when you receive a lower grade than you expected is to think of it as part of the essential learning curve of academic life.

You have probably heard what Theodore Roosevelt said:

“The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything’.

So, why shouldn’t this apply to you? In any case, you haven’t made a mistake, you have just taken another step on the long but rewarding journey towards academic success.

If you look at a disappointing grade as a way of learning how to get a better one, you are turning a positive into a negative: in other words, you’re learning!

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