How to get an A in class


Is it luck? I doubt it.

Getting an A isn’t easy. An A is supposed to mean “outstanding scholarship.” Something is “outstanding” because it’s better than what most people normally produce. What most people normally produce is “average.” So how do you get past average and produce work that’s outstanding, or at least so good that it’s worth an A?1

First, take education seriously. Be curious, learn things, get interested and involved in something in school, work on your weaknesses, and commit time to the process. I teach psychology, which is a science, and that means you have to pay special attention to method and theory: the ways we ask and answer questions to produce durable answers, and the ways we word our descriptions of concepts and their interrelations. Most people have to learn how to think scientifically, and we usually don’t teach it, but we show it: in the ways the material is described in our textbooks and (hopefully) the ways the material is described when teaching. Try to emulate what you read in textbooks and hear from your teachers in class.

Second, pay attention to your writing skills. Writing will follow from your thinking, but it’s a separate skill. Take care how you write essays, how you put your thoughts into words, how you communicate to me that you know what you’re talking about; show a level of understanding that goes beyond mere basics. Getting an A requires knowing what you’re talking about, at least at the level expected by the course, and that’s taken for granted. I mean, if you don’t know your concepts well enough to vaguely but correctly describe them, your terminology well enough to understand them when used in sentences, your facts, and so on, then you might not even get a B. If you find yourself quoting glossary entries (whether in a paper or a quiz), you don’t know the concept well enough. If you get graded assignments from me with a lot of grammar marks, or the comment to “use the Writing Learning Center,” note this as a sign of weakness and seek help.

Also, follow directions. Be conscientious about school work, like most A students most of the time… it’s something you can choose to do, if it’s not a habit already.

A Papers: When it comes to writing assignments, I usually hand out a detailed description of the assignment that might contain options to choose from. The description might not tell you about length requirements if those are already noted on the syllabus, however. An A student, being conscientious, knows what’s on the syllabus, or at least thinks to check the syllabus once again. The writing assignment might also require that you follow APA style (which you should expect in most upper-level psychology courses). When it does, an A student finds out about APA style, perhaps by looking it up in a handbook or online, pays attention to detail, and for the most part uses it correctly. I usually include “tips for writing essay assignments” on the syllabus, and an A student will have followed those at least. (If I don’t specifically require APA, then you should make a habit of following one of the standards: APA, MLA, or Chicago; writing a formal essay in college without following one of these styles correctly is just lazy.)

In addition to following instructions, an A paper avoids most error and it reads well. There’s something smooth about an A paper. It’s written in a comfortable voice, not straining to be a work of academic perfection or jargon, but it uses terminology as comfortably as it uses the rest of the language. If there’s material taken from outside sources (that is, anything outside your head), this material is worked smoothly into the paper and cited correctly, following the rules of the style being used. All factual claims, except the most obvious (e.g., “the world is round”) are supported with citations in text and references at the end of the paper showing where the information has previously been published. Copied wording is properly quoted. The paper is well-organized, it flows, it has something new or interesting to say, and it’s typically free of errors in grammar or spelling. The content of the A paper is mostly correct, the arguments are organized and logical, and the author (that’s you, the person writing the paper) shows that he or she understands the material being described. After all, it’s a paper the author (you) had plenty of time to work on: time to learn the material, time to think about it, time to rewrite rough drafts.

A Tests: Writing an in-class quiz or test is something a little different. When you take a quiz in class, you’re under pressure, so I don’t expect the smoothest writing. You have one chance, one draft to communicate that you know what you’re talking about, and I take this into consideration. The A answer, however, doesn’t fail to communicate that you know what the material is all about without leaving it up to me to guess whether you know. It covers the bases, but it also sticks to the question. It’s exact. It doesn’t guess what I’m looking for, it understands and answers the question. It doesn’t stray on a tangent related to the question, it answers the particular question. It doesn’t recite a glossary entry, it shows comprehension of the concept. Answers to take-home tests are treated a little more like papers.

If you don’t write well enough for an A, you’ll have to work on it. There’s no other way out. I can’t emphasize it enough: buy a writing handbook, such as the Harbrace College Handbook or Diana Hacker’s Pocket Style Manual (ask for it in the bookstore) or her A Writer’s Reference, or the Chicago Manual of Style, and use it. Practice! Write! And on campus, use the free tutoring services at the Writing Center. If you happen to have a high IQ it tends to make things easier; those with IQs closer to average just have to work harder to make it look like you have a higher IQ. Such is college. The tall folks have it easier in basketball and the smart folks have it easier in school; the rest just have to work harder.

Then what does it take for a B? Mostly the same as for an A, but with imperfections. The B is supposed to represent good work, “above average,” although it’s probably the average grade at many colleges today, including my classes. (Actually, depending on the course, other than PSY-101, the average grade my students earn is between B- and B.) The B essay might not flow as naturally, although technically well-organized. The ideas might not be as new or interesting, although standard and perfectly acceptable. There might be problems in style or grammar, but there won’t be too many of these. (As with an A paper, all papers are improved by re-reading and rewriting, and if necessary when the final draft contains a few penciled corrections instead of neatly typed errors.) Use the comments I give on your writing assignments to help make the next ones better. The B paper also shows command of the knowledge of the topic, though not at quite as deep a level as the A paper.

And B answers on quizzes? They’re mostly right, usually without blatant errors, but typically incomplete, or partially incorrect. This incompleteness problem might come from stopping short of communicating the whole issue, or it might be due to weaknesses of understanding. Often I see students writing something they’d memorized from the text, and just leaving it at that – technically correct for what it includes, but seldom answering the whole question, and generally indicating an act of regurgitation without understanding. (You know what I mean: a memorized definition of a concept or an example, correctly regurgitated, but not well understood.)

As things get worse: C work is decent, acceptable, but with more weaknesses than strengths. It’s supposed to represent “satisfactory scholarship,” but grade inflation means the C is sometimes given as a low grade. I think a C is honorable (the credit transfers to other colleges), but a sign of too much error. An essay that gets a C grade in my class might have the right idea but too many problems communicating it (i.e., grammar, especially sentence structure, organization problems, etc.), or it might have problems in the idea and fewer problems in the communication. On tests in class, C answers contain some correct elements, but show these weakly, often relying on rote regurgitation of some phrases from the book or notes (see what I wrote above on “B” answers), or also contain much that is wrong, which detracts from what was right.

The C is not a very low grade: D and F are very low grades, which represent faulty and extremely faulty work (perhaps little to say, misunderstood concepts, misunderstood directions, poor sentence structure, disorganization, missing references, no studying, and so on). The C is acceptable, but if you are getting D and F grades, then you need to work on basics. Study more, study differently (the old study habits obviously aren’t working), and get help from others (but don’t cheat – papers that rely on cheating, like plagiarism, whether intentional and malicious or not, typically get an automatic F). If the problem is persistent, look into courses that help with basic study skills and writing and reading skills. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but it is something to work on. Ignoring it won’t improve your grades.

What’s the bottom line? This is college, and grades aren’t free. They’re not even sold for the price of tuition. You earn grades independently of paying for tuition, and you earn them by working and being careful about your writing and scholarship.

1. Here’s how I define the letter grades (and remember that grades represent the quality of the work, and are not an evaluation of your person):

A = It’s right on. Meets all expectations of understanding and ability to express that understanding; there is full control over the material.
B = It’s good. There’s room for improvement but it’s on the right track; some work is needed to gain a clear understanding and full control, and to clearly express that understanding.
C = It’s OK. Not lost, but not found; a change is needed, otherwise understanding may remain elusive. There’s basic competency, memorization, but the work is not inspiring, not in control of the material. [Strangely, this can get you all the way through college.]
D = It’s weak. Something is wrong. The work suggests a struggle or unwillingness to remember, to understand, and to show that understanding; can’t seem to (or just won’t) read the map carefully enough and therefore got lost. I hope next time it’ll be better.
F = It’s absent. Not in control. Knowledge or understanding are apparently unimproved by the experience. Perhaps inattentive, totally disinterested, or broadly unprepared; the work is not acceptable in prime time. If this is a consistent grade, then this is where we say, “X isn’t for everyone,” or maybe “wrong time, wrong place.” It may also represent a learning disability.

Michael Ofsowitz, 2002/2019