Do you want high marks without learning?

booksRecently a professor friend of mine whom I used to work with posted a query from a student who was looking into which section of a required English course to take. The student writes: “Don’t want to actually learn anything in english, just want a high mark and get my communications course over with. Minimal work for highest mark basically. Thanks!” My friend’s posting of this yielded an interesting – sometimes frustrating, sometimes productive – online discussion from fellow academics about what to do with this type of student, how to reach him/her, and how to articulate clearly the importance of English as a scholarly discipline. I think, however, that there might be some other things to consider in looking at students with this attitude.

For instance, there are some structural things at place to make it rational (wrong, but rational) for students to have a very outcome-oriented perspective with a heavy weight on grades over learning. Students are rewarded for high grades with scholarships and opportunities. However, one thing that immature students like the one quoted above might not realize is that once they get out of school, if they haven’t mastered the skills that those “high marks” are supposed to represent, they will suffer.

For the student who doesn’t “want to actually learn anything in english” (split infinitive and failing to capitalize a proper noun notwithstanding), he/she contributes to a significant problem in the workplace. The US alone spends $3.4b/yr in remedial writing in the WORKPLACE (that’s over and above the roughly $3b/yr in math and communications remediation in college and university). 

If you don’t “want to actually learn anything in english,” ultimately what you are suggesting is that you don’t want to develop those important communication skills (sometimes called soft skills) that make the difference between being promoted and not being promoted. 

Now you might be reading this saying, “yeah, sure, but you used to be an English prof, so you’re obviously biased. Whatevs.” And you’d be right. I am biased.

However, I now manage non-English technical workers and developers, and I assure you that no matter how talented the programmer may be, if he/she cannot communicate effectively, then (a) he/she can’t garner a high hourly billing rate and (b) will never be a team lead and have more responsibility (and greater pay). 

One thing to bear in mind: no matter what profession you might choose upon getting that “high mark” and graduating from university, you will have to deal with people, be they co-workers, managers, executives, or clients and customers. If you just did “minimal work” to get your “communications course over with,” then you might find yourself stuck and pigeon-holed without the necessary skills to move on and be promoted.

My advice to students today is that if you find yourself thinking about marks rather than the acquisition of skills, just make sure that you’re not short-changing your future self. Make sure that you don’t let an opportunity to learn pass you by.

Your next promotion may depend on it.

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