5 min read

Good Grades = Big Problem

The worst thing I learned in University was learning to get good grades. It sounds ridiculous, but hear me out.
Good Grades = Big Problem

When I think back to the classes that I took, my immediate thought is the grade that I received.

It indicates how well I knew the work and how much I enjoyed the subject. It's difficult to consistently work for a subject that you hate.

For me, as for most students, the measurement of what I was learning i.e. the final grade, was the most important thing. It wasn't whether I understood the work, but whether the report at the end said that I understood it.

Is this a problem? Yes, it is.

Good grades don't indicate understanding. They indicate that you know how to study for a test. Unfortunately, being good at studying for tests doesn't get you very far outside of university.


Tests are hackable. Once you figure this out it becomes a lot easier to get good grades. Here's an example:

Let's say I'm studying South African history.

I've got a week to go until the exam. If the exam was truly about my knowledge of South African history, I'd be able to go and sit and read the best books about South African history. On the day of my exam, I could sit with my lecturer and discuss the impact of days gone by.

I'm laughing as I write this. My student brain tells me that studying in this way is absurd. Exams aren't about your knowledge. They're about being able to learn something for a short period of time and put it down when the appropriate question pops up.

If I want to do well in that exam, the best books about South African history are a waste of my time. My best bet is the lecture notes. Particularly the parts which the lecturer emphasized in class. If the lecturer feels that the most important piece of South African history was the arrival of Bartolomeu Dias at Mossel Bay, then that's what I'm going to study.

Whether it's the case or not is beside the point. There's almost guaranteed to be a question on it, and if I want to get good grades, I'd better be able to answer it.

I'd also identify parts of the lecture notes which look like questions - something like the date when he arrived. You know, those clear and obvious points of information which fit neatly into an exam question. I'd be wise to study these points off-by-heart.

If there's something which I found interesting, but the lecturer only brushed over it in class, I'm happy to ignore it. It's unlikely that I'll be asked something that the lecturer only spent a couple of minutes on.

There's also a built-in double-check: Recycled past papers.

I'll never forget the feeling in my first year where I opened an economics paper to see that it was the same as the previous year. It felt the exact same when I opened a criminal law paper in my final year and saw the same thing.

Past papers are free marks because they get re-circulated. As well as learning what kind of questions this lecturer asks, you'll often get actual exam questions. Many lecturers re-use them. After teaching the same class for 15 years, it would be hard not to, at least inadvertently.

All of a sudden, a scope which was 1000 pages long, is narrowed down to 50 pages. If you learn those 50 pages well you'll probably walk out with a distinction.

"Wow, 80%? You must really know your stuff!"

Well, no. There are about 950 pages which I have no clue about.

As you can see, tests are hackable.


Getting a good grade is so different from learning a lot that you have to choose one or the other, and you can't blame students when they choose grades.

Anyone who cares about getting good grades has to play this game, or they'll be surpassed by those who do. I'm yet to meet someone who prioritised learning over grades.

I'm not surprised either. When post-graduate programs, scholarships, employers, and even your parents, judge you based on the grade you received instead of what you've learnt, can you blame any student for prioritising grades instead of learning?

Of course, there are exceptions to this, but it happens in enough cases for it to be a concern.


McKinsey estimates that between 400 million and 800 million people could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030. New jobs will be available, but people will need to find their way into them. Between 75 million and 375 million people will need to switch industries and learn new skills.

The change approaching us is enormous. The problem with hackable tests is that they create students who are incapable of adapting to that change.

Regardless of the type of work that you do, two things are important. Firstly, your skills. These indicate your ability to do the work that you're employed for. Without the necessary skills, you can't do the job.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the ability to learn. Just as jobs will change rapidly, so will the skills needed to do them. Learning new skills and learning them quickly is important. Somebody will learn them, and if you want to keep up and remain valuable, that needs to be you.

The problem with prioritising grades over learning, as hackable tests do, is that is doesn't equip students with the skills they need to be good at their job. A bigger problem is that it doesn't teach them to be quick learners.

The ability to learn quickly seems like an important skill to have when you think that up to 375 million people may have to change industries and learn new skills.


Students graduating with a lack of skill and the inability to learn effectively is a problem.

It's a difficult problem to solve, but that's exactly why we need to solve it. While progress is slow, there is progress. We've got brilliant minds working on improving education every day. That's something which fills me with hope for the future.

So what's the point of this essay? In one word, awareness.

Once I noticed the difference between actual learning and hacking tests, it became obvious that it was something which was harming me in the long run. It also became obvious that it impacts a lot of people, often without them noticing. It took me five years to notice, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Being aware of it seems to have made a difference. By prioritising understanding, my idea of learning has changed completely. Learning isn't something which only happens in school and university. It's something which happens all the time as we attempt to understand ideas about the world and the people around us.

This change of perspective is helping prepare for the frequent learning curves I expect to encounter in work and life.

The more I think about it, the more it excites me. A generation of lifelong learners is capable of extraordinary feats of innovation and creativity. Imagine when more people decide that grades aren't as important as we think. Imagine a world where people value knowledge and understanding instead of a symbol on a piece of paper.

I imagine the result to be new ideas, and people making use of their unique talents to bring these ideas to life. I imagine this to be a breeding ground for progress. It's exciting to think about what the world could look like if that happened.

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