Why do some students succeed and others fail
to achieve desired class grades
, and academic goals & objectives?
by Richard Millsap

   Many wonderful students have passed through my classrooms and I want you to succeed. Learning is fun and you have to dream high and you have to work hard because so much of your future depends on it. After putting some 50,0000 students or more through my courses, I have observed common problems in those who fail to achieve desired class grades, and other things they want but are not willing to put in the work necessary to get them.  Why do some students succeed and others fail?  How well prepared are you for tomorrow's workforce?  Some humans have very difficult unsatisfying and unhappy lives while others do not.  One of the determining factors is quality of education because of all the advantages it gives.
   The reason you are in college is to get the best education possible because when you graduate, if you do, you will be standing in a job line asking to be hired in the occupation of your dreams.  There will be many others standing in that line asking for the same job. Everyone cannot be hired. Then who should be hired?  Isn't it most logical that the employer will hire the best person available?  Will that be you?  Some are rejected over and over for many occupations their entire lives, and they often blame everyone but themselves. Honest self analysis is critical to success for the wise, for we all make mistakes, but it is the wise who are successful in adjusting to prevent the future failure.
   
One important measure of occupational success is academic record and it will follow you for the rest of your life.  Why should a manager select you for a job when you graduated “marginally” by only doing the minimum required - especially when there are so many others more highly qualified than you in line?  The world respects those students who work hard and it rewards them, and disrespects those who do not. As a horseman, I have also learned that I can lead a horse to water, but I can't make him drink. A student has to want to do well and put in the effort to do so. A student has to care badly, and has to work hard to produce the grade he or she seeks.
    Why do hard-to-get-into universities want a record of achievement not only in academics, but also in leadership, sports, and community services?  It is because those high achieving students are the cream of the crop able to successfully juggle many tasks at once. Military academies fight for these students because the battlefield is the most chaotic environment on earth and is essential that these future leaders be able to juggle many critical tasks at once. Some young people have leaned to do this well early in life, while others have not. Some mature earlier - some do not. Would it really surprise you that all employers want to hire the cream of the crop for the same reason - because they can successfully juggle many critical tasks at once?  Those students are better achievers. Some students cannot even handle one task successfully, much less multiple tasks successfully.  Sometimes this is because a student is lacking motivation, is lazy, unprepared, undisciplined, has a poor attitude, and perhaps is not very intelligent.  Whatever the reason for lack of success, a student must perform self analyses to identify and correct problems and must seek help where needed before it is too late. Isn't it better to get what you want now, which leads to life happiness, rather than facing rejection after rejection?
    A famous philosopher (me) once said: "There are 3 kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who wish things would happen, and all the rest wandering in a daze wondering what happened." Those high achiever types of students find a way to make good things happen.  In order to achieve in many areas, one must focus due to limited time in the day.  Excuses that prevent success and achievement in those areas are useless and accomplish nothing.  No one likes excuses.  Employers want results.  You must recognize any diversions and distractions to your school work as the enemies to achieving your intermediate objectives and goals. It was only later in life in Marine officer training that I was taught for the very 1st time how to identify an ultimate goal (for you it might be medical school), and then how to identify all the intermediate objectives necessary to achieve that goal (just like steps to a ladder being the intermediate objectives). Then of course, one has to do the hard work stepping up each intermediate objective of the ladder to get to the top, or he will never achieve his goal. Oh I wish I had been taught this early in life.
   
So, if that means for you no more television, movies, dates, video games, partying with friends, or working at a job until you get your education act together (major goal), then so be it. You must focus with the intensity of a laser to prevent those distractions from causing you to fail. You might be surprised to know that there will be many in your life, known & unknown, who want you to fail. Will you let them win?  Will you let others defeat you? Will you let you defeat yourself?
   
There are some lessons that apply to all academic subjects in college.  Poor performance, on exams and other assignments, is often caused by poor attitude and it is your enemy. Why do some students succeed?  Why do others fail to achieve desired grades and why do they fail to be selected for the jobs and careers of their dreams?  Sometimes it is as simple as this poor attitude and not spending enough time on the material.  How much time does it take?  It depends on how much time you need. We each have different abilities and some of us have to work harder to be over achievers. We learn by repetition. 2,000 years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “A man’s character is his fate … the content of your character is your choice.  Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.”
    This required course is one of many in the academic gauntlet we ask you to run through.  So whether you are interested in government or not, or any other course, it doesn’t make any difference, as you must perform well.  Whether you know it or not, your quest here is an important epic battle, against yourself and other students.  Your task is to out perform others, in the classroom and out, in order that the manager selects you for the job of your dreams and a lifetime of happiness. Thus you must set a high standard, as you are not only in competition with yourself, but with many others.  You have to care.  Some do not care. You are paying us a lot of money to teach you subjects.  My suggestion is when you are really trying and you do not understand the material, you need to ask questions frequently in class and come see we professors frequently in office hours to clarify material. This does not work when you are confused for a month and then come to see a professor for just 30 minutes before an exam and expect that all will be clear. Grades separate those who work hard from those who do not. It would not be fair if all earned an "A" regardless of performance, as it would cheapen the value of those who earned it.
    In all your classes, your objective is to inhale as much learning as possible, whether you like your classes or not, and to eliminate any obstacle that would prevent you from achieving it.  Obstacles include: not setting goals & intermediate objectives to get there, not coming to class, reading material in class like newspapers and not paying attention to lecture content, arriving late and leaving early, laughing and talking and not paying attention to class lectures and not taking detailed notes and not asking questions to clarify lecture points and distracting others and the teacher, missing exams, not reading the text as many times as necessary to master and understand the material, and failure to organize and even memorize lecture & text material. This includes being emotionally healthy and getting enough sleep so you will be alert enough and in the right frame of mind in class to get the material. Some students even brag about how undisciplined and lazy they are by stating that they never or rarely read & study their text books or class lecture material.  What they are saying is they want to learn the minimum required to get a degree. Well, no wonder these low achievers have such difficult times getting and keeping jobs on graduation.
     Regarding attendance... if you are absent the equivalent of two weeks worth of classes or more over the semester, expect that you will not do as well as you could have done.  There will be ramifications if I notice that too many students are too frequently absent.  In such a case I will not curve exams, nor will I give breaks on close calls on end of semester grades, and I may give pop quizzes.  You have to come to class. Tens of thousands of students have cycled through my classrooms.  A few will say my course is easy and that you do not have to come to class and only have to study my PowerPoint slides to make a B.  If you listen to them, you may end up being one of the 15 to 20% who make D's & F's.  See this photo?  Can you believe how these two students were reading newspapers in class while a person in line to be President of the United States was teaching how Congress works?  They missed a rare opportunity to increase their knowledge and their behavior was rude!  While I lecture I notice some are texting on cell phones, reading newspapers, paperback books and other materials during lectures.  During the playing of videos I have noticed from the back of the class students using notebook computers playing video games and "IMing" friends and working internet sites un-related to class.  I have not yet seen students using computers to word process class notes.  We do not wish to shut down the use of computers during classes, like we have had to do with cell phones and such, but is worth considering if students will not use them appropriately.  How can you do well on exams if not paying attention in class?  Know that my PowerPoint slides are merely lecture outlines and that I ask questions not only about what is on the slides but what I say about the slides.  I am often mystified to see students not taking class notes and I wonder how these students will remember what I said about a point a month later on the exam. Life is about choices.  Some choose to make "A's" and some to make "F's."  You might be amused by this story.  In 1992, one of my students from White Settlement, Paul Serio, informed me that he was a Burleson public school substitute teacher and new to the area from New York City and that his grade in my class was too low and bad for his new teaching career.  He blamed me and demanded that I improve them.  I refused and suggested that he study harder.  His looks at me for the rest of the semester could kill.  Two years later in March 1994 he made national newspaper headlines for being extradited back to Florida where he was convicted of capital murder for the cold blooded "murder for hire" execution of a mother and her 18 month old baby daughter.  He was a contract mob type killer from New York City!  Serio's method was to strangle with a telephone cord and stab with a knife.  In this court room photo of the convicted murderer Serio, crying, doesn't look so brave and tough when informed he faced the electric chair.  The Burleson ISD substitute teacher was a contract killer!  Of course I get paid to deal with criminals in my federal law enforcement job, but just do not expect to find them in my classrooms. There are several lessons here. One, you never know who the student is sitting next to you. Even criminals want more education to improve themselves. Two, if I will not arbitrarily raise the grade of a threatening contract serial killer, what makes you think I will change your grade?  :-) Study! See http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1994-03-24/news/9403240120_1_verdicts-jury-first-degree-murder

    Another problem I see is that most students study hard for the first exam and do well, but then some being over confident do not study as hard for the other exams and progressively do worse, especially the final when they are juggling many exams during one week. Do not fall into that trap. Manage time carefully. These are but a few reasons why students fail to achieve desired grades and why they fail to be selected for the careers of their dreams.
   One of the above offenses committed on occasion does not seem like a major problem and appears survivable. But such bad habits are like a string of thread in that one strand is easily broken; however, wrapped around your fingers many times it becomes unbreakable and often we are not quite sure at what point it began to control us.  Performing well and achieving high grades is like an addicting drug in that once you are rewarded with A's for your hard work - you want more.  Priming the pump once will help you get on and stay on the right path for your academic career, as you get to a point that anything less than an A is unacceptable and this motivates you to work as hard as necessary to accomplish the task.
    It just does not make sense to do so poorly that you are forced to re-take the course.  It is not good on your academic record and is a tragic waste of your time and resources.  By avoiding the above pitfalls, you achieve academic success, and if you stir into the recipe leadership, sports, civic mindedness and good old fashioned ethics you have a winning formula for success in life.
   
Have you ever considered how important it is to establish a brand identity for yourself? What image comes to mind when you see a Rolex? Fine quality watch. What image comes to mind when you think of Rolls Royce? One of the most expensive quality luxury cars made in the world. What image comes to mind when you think of George Washington? Our nation's first president blessed with extraordinary good character. What image comes to mind when you think of Mohandas Gandhi? Man of peace with high character. When I think of Paul Newman, I do think of an Oscar winning actor, but I also think most about how he used hundreds of millions of his earned wealth for charity. Want to be remembered like the Gollum in Lord of the Rings? Gollum, originally known as Smeagol was a creature of Hobbit origin. The name Gollum was derived from the disgusting gurgling, choking cough he made when he thought of things he did not like. It was deformed and twisted in both body and mind by the corruption of the Ring. His chief desire was to possess the Ring that had enslaved him. During his centuries under the Ring's influence, he developed a dissociative identity disorder. Sméagol, his "good" personality, still vaguely remembered things like friendship and love, while Gollum, his "bad" personality, was a slave to the Ring and would kill anyone who tried to take it. The two personalities often quarreled when he talked to himself as he often had no one else to speak to. The personalities had a love/hate relationship, mirroring Gollum's love and hatred for the Ring and for himself. When people think of you, you do not want them doing the Gollum disgusting gurgling, choking cough. I am amused by the dialog in the classic movie Princess Bride between the hero Westley and the bad prince Humperdinck that goes like this:

Westley: WRONG. Your ears you keep and I'll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, "Dear God! What is that thing," will echo in your perfect ears. That is what to the pain means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.

 

Prince Humperdinck: I think you're bluffing.

 

Westley: It's possible, Pig, I might be bluffing. It's conceivable, you miserable, vomitus mass, that I'm only lying here because I lack the strength to stand. But, then again... perhaps I have the strength after all. [slowly rises and points sword directly at the prince]

 

Westley: DROP... YOUR... SWORD!

    No, I would not want to be viewed as a Humperdinck. Everything you do develops your brand name and you want to do nothing to harm it. That includes your academic performance or lack there of. In college you do not want to be viewed a unintelligent, lazy, unable to perform and unable to accomplish simple, much less complex academic assignments. You want to develop an academic brand name that is synonymous with smart, intelligent, hard worker, and ability to produce quality work in a timely and responsible way. When people hear your name you want them to think of those positive images, along with your leadership qualities and community service to others because that is the type that the employer of your dreams wants to hire.

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The college class courtesy controversy
by Dr. Allan Saxe
 
   
About a year ago, the noted conservative political columnist George Will wrote about disrespectful college students. I could not much relate to that column until several weeks ago when I was asked to be a guest lecturer in a university classroom. My speech was not to take up the entire 90-minute period, so I arrived early. It was a large lecture room being used at this time by introductory students. I came in, acknowledged the professor speaking and sat quietly in the back.

    As I sat there, I noticed a number of students talking among themselves. Their conversations were loud enough to be heard several rows around them. Many were eating or drinking. The professor, after trying to ignore their conversations, motioned for them to be more quiet. Her pleading went unheeded.  The students proceeded to talk among themselves as if they had not even heard her reprimand. Again the professor tried to quiet them in a respectful manner. And still the students were deaf to her commands. As the lecturer continued, several students arrived late. Then late arrivals became more common. More and more came in well after the lecture had begun.  Then, as some students arrived late, others -- evidently bored, hungry, tired or having something "better" to do - got up and left. Thirty minutes into the lecture, the aisles were full of students passing each other -- some arriving late, others leaving early.  The professor said nothing about all of these comings and goings. I asked myself what I would have done. Would I have put a stop to these disruptions in my own classroom? There is no easy answer.
    Many students have work schedules that force their leaving. Others may be ill or need a ride to work or home. Some instructors do not wish to embarrass students or be accused of some kind of harassment at a time in education when students' demands and needs are being given increasing importance.
    Over the years I have found, mostly through anecdotal evidence, that student disrespect for college teachers and their fellow students is not at all unusual.  Many professors are timid about complaining for fear of being blamed for not teaching well enough or not having the ability to control their classes. When I attended university many years ago, all the burden was placed on the student.  The student was given books to read and assignments to do. Classroom attendance was nearly always perfect. Students hardly ever arrived late or left early. They came to class and stayed until the end. Nearly all of them stayed awake.

    Today the pendulum has gone to the other direction. All the emphasis is on the college professor, who is pressured not only to teach but to inspire students to learn. It is a difficult assignment, especially in the face of widespread student disrespect for the classroom environment.  It is an open secret that many college and university professors do not wish to teach many introductory classes. Their utopia is to teach perhaps one small introductory class and an advanced or graduate class and to mostly do research. This insulates them from the student masses.
   
I recently spoke to an instructor from a university near Austin. She told me that her university permitted instructors to choose either teaching or research as a vehicle for evaluation, promotion and tenure. All but one chose research! It's understandable. Teaching is perhaps the most difficult of all assignments. There are awards for great teaching and a bit of recognition. But the real rewards go to the researchers. Research is the magnet for grants, recognition, tenure and promotion.  Researchers have told me privately that they do research for all those reasons, but also because it helps them escape the students. Higher education is a two-way street.  Remember, students enter higher learning after spending at least 12 years in elementary and secondary studies. Students need to come to the classroom with respect for the subject, the professor and fellow students.
   
Also, there is much more to a college environment than the classroom. Students should make use of the library, computer facilities and reading materials and associate with those who will benefit them academically.

Perhaps it is easy to understand why the classroom breeds such disrespect. Students want to be entertained, inspired and educated at the same time. But all professors are not really good teachers. And they should not have to be. Students can learn from even the dreariest lecturer if they really wish to learn. I can only remember one or two truly great teachers. But my college friends still learned and were grateful for the experience. Most college and university teachers truly like their students. Many would like teaching to be the center of their lives. If students would come to class on time, not leave early, and refrain from talking and eating in class, they might get better performance from their teachers.

Allan Saxe is an associate professor of political science and a longtime resident of Arlington.  Arlington Star-Telegram November 1, 1999. (c) 1999.