Saturday, September 26, 2015

Straight A's Are Not Enough

A few months ago I was contacted via email and asked to review Straight A's Are Not Enough by Judy Fishel.  I agreed to do so, received the book, and started reading.  The real world intruded so I didn't finish the book until today, but I'll tell you right now, I liked it.

Subtitled Breakthroughs in Learning for College Students, the book's purpose is clear.  The thesis is offered in the preface:  "(l)earning is more important than grades."  And at that point it's necessary to take a detour.

The author believes that too many students are either more interested in a diploma than in an education, and hence focus on short-term grades rather than on long-term knowledge, or else don't know how to learn beyond passing tests and getting grades.  Teaching mostly seniors in high school, I have to concur with that, but I can't dump that solely on my students because I was that way, too.  And we can't really fault students for being like that, as they're just responding to the rules of the game as we've taught them.  Oh, I wanted the education, and I'd have been happy to remember everything I ever learned, but I was too focused on grades to make that happen.  It's only now, decades into adulthood and well-settled into my life, that I now put so much effort into my master's classes.

But I don't kid myself, I still want the grades.  And that's OK; look again at the title of the book.  Straight A's are perfectly fine, but they're not enough.  I finally want more.

Straight A's Are Not Enough is organized into 23 chapters covering topics as varied as  how we learn, goal setting, time management, note taking, effective writing, organization, reading, research, memory, etc.  Reading each chapter I was impressed at how organized the author herself is, presenting the material in a logical, engaging manner.  What's somewhat entertaining for me, though, is the list of "strategies" in each chapter--101 of them in all, each with steps to follow!  There's no way a student could follow every step of every strategy--they'd have no time for their coursework!--but these strategies serve as eye-openers and signposts for effective learning.  Just as an example, let's take a look at the strategies from Chapter 9, Take Notes You'll Want To Study:
Strategy 9.1  Prepare to Take Notes
Strategy 9.2  Demonstrate Your Intentions To Learn
Strategy 9.3  Recognize Lecture Clues
Strategy 9.4  Try Different Note-Taking Formats
Strategy 9.5  Use Your Notes Well
Strategy 9.6  Rewrite Notes To Learn
Despite their generic names, what I like about Fishel's strategies is that they're real, concrete strategies that anyone can follow.  They're not, for example, like the following strategy for making money in the stock market:  "buy low, sell high."  How do you know when the price is low, how do you know when it's high?  The steps should be common sense but are stated outright nonetheless.  Here, for example, are just the first two steps of Strategy 9.2, with explanatory details:
Step 1:  If you have a cell phone, turn it off and put it away.  Avoid distractions.
Step 2:  Stay awake, alert, and focused.  It helps to sit near the front where you can see and hear the professor better and where he or she will see you.  Don't sit by friends who will whisper to you, write notes, or otherwise distract you.
Again, those are obviously "duh" statements, but they're good, practical advice.  The strategies for verbal and visual organization are very good, as are the suggestions for time management.

Besides the strategies and their associated steps, there are morsels of wisdom spread throughout the book:
"Learning is more important than grades."  
"...(S)tudents often use study time to read their assignments and then think they're finished.  This is part of the reason they learn so little and forget it so quickly."

"Learning involves far more than memorizing facts."

"When you were younger, your teachers and parents enforced discipline.  They set goals for you and made sure you did the necessary work to reach them.  In college, you must set your own goals and be self disciplined."

"A person who is not resilient sees mistakes and poor results as an indication that they are failures." 

"People who aren't able to concentrate have not disciplined their minds...Several studies have reached the obvious conclusion that students who attempt to multitask during classes or while 'studying' learn less and make significantly lower grades."

"If you are in college, we can assume you had some of the best learning skills in your high school.  But that doesn't mean that your skills are adequate for college."

"Just as students often read without much thought, too many students look at an essay question and start writing before thinking about what to say."

"If you don't know what you want to achieve in your presentation, your audience never will."
You get the idea.

Fishel's point comes through loud and clear--if you're going to spend 4 years and many tens of thousands of dollars to get a bachelor's degree, why not come out of that process with an education, too?  She describes 4 types of learners (she's very big into lists!):  shallow learners, who just want to complete an assignment; strategic learners, who work for grades; deep learners, who want to understand basic concepts; and intentional learners, who choose which type of learner they're going to be in accordance with their goals.  She notes on p. 30 that "students using the shallow and strategic approaches are both extrinsically motivated...Students using both the deep and intentional approaches to learning are intrinsically motivated.  Their reward is learning itself, not the grades."  I agree.

I'm obviously a big fan of this book.  It's opened my eyes to how I myself can be a better student; I'm going to keep it in my classroom so my students can take a read.

Straight A's Are Not Enough

Full disclosure:  the book was sent to me free of charge with the understanding that I would post a review of it.  I have received no payment of any kind, and this review is entirely my own with no influence from any other person or group.


Auntie Ann said...

Most kids are probably bored most of the time in most history classes, and yet, history books sell very well among adults. In school, you're taught and are focused on the discreet points that you need to know to do well in the class. As an adult, you can enjoy the flow and movements of history, the characters and romance of it; you can enjoy it on your own terms, not the teacher's. There's a reason why there are ten or so "history" channels on TV, and why shows (often as ridiculous as they are) like "Rome", "The Tudors", and "The Vikings" do so well, or why "Hamilton" is the hottest show on Broadway.

It's the same with classic lit. English classes seem to be able to beat out all of the art, the poetry, and the heart out of books. Can anything kill your love of a book faster than being given one line out of book and having to write a 5-paragraph essay about it? And yet, that is often the kind of assignment teachers give students. But if you were never "taught" a classic book, and chose to read it as an adult, you'd often find that you actually love it (I had the good fortune never to have been "taught" "Huck Finn".) The canon of classic lit is what it is because they are some of the best books ever written. How many high school kids crossing the stage, diploma in hand, feel that way about *any* of the books they had to read in class?

Teacher gardener said...

I am frustrated by some of my 6th graders who don't care about learning; they just want an A. I am supposed to help them achieve this by whatever means necessary and they are mad that I don't. Their parents are too.

Darren said...

I read an excerpt about Oliver Cromwell in the World History book our school uses. At the end of two sentences I was ready to fall asleep. He "sent the Parliament home"? Is that all? Where's the fire? Where's the *story*?

Former parliamentarian Cromwell becomes dictator and rules by decree--where *is* that?

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's one of the lessons we're supposed to learn from history so we don't repeat it. But not in the world history textbook used at my school. No, he sent Parliament home, probably for some tea.


Anonymous said...

Straight A's? I remember not having below 110% during my senior year. That was over a dozen years ago. "93% = B+" Damn curve grades.