Too Smart to Fail?

When students focus their attention on grades and how they are performing, learning may not result, writes Joseph Holtgreive.

August 16, 2016
iStock/Willie B. Thomas

One of my engineering students came to see me recently asking to drop a class late. That was not an unusual request, and since it was shortly after the deadline I was prepared to approve it. But before I did, we talked, and our conversation went right to the heart of an issue I suspect many bright college students are facing: fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning.

The student explained that she had done poorly on the first midterm exam. When I asked her why she did poorly she responded, “I underestimated how much effort it would take; I thought I could get an A without studying.” Though she believed she could still put in effort and raise her grade before the end of the term, she wanted to drop the course so she could retake it and get an A.

The kicker was the class was not required -- it was Russian literature. I asked her, “Rather than retaking this class, wouldn’t you be better off putting your effort into a class you find more engaging?” And her response caught me by surprise. She liked the course and found the readings interesting. Her lack of effort did not reflect a lack of engagement but rather a desire to minimize her effort.

This issue can be a big problem for those bright students who have done very well academically in high school with relatively little effort. The young woman asking to drop Russian literature was one of them.

The reasoning she used revealed a pattern of thinking that explains why many students struggle academically during their transition to college: they are simply focusing their attention on the wrong outcome. It’s understandable why so much emphasis is placed on the measurement of their performance, GPA. Without an exceptional record in high school, their chances of getting accepted into an elite university are slim. With so much at stake, they can’t afford to not focus on reaching the main goal. Yet while these students think they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.

For students who found high school relatively easy, staring at the measurement of their performance is affirming. Even more affirming is the gap between their outcomes, in the form of grades, and their input, in the form of effort. The wider the gap, the smarter they feel, and this group of students is used to seeing a wide gap. The problem with that way of thinking is that it creates an inverse relationship between grades and effort. When their grades exceed their effort, they feel smart, and the wider the gap, the smarter they feel. But when their effort exceeds their grades, which can happen as they transition from high school to college, they feel dumb, and the wider this new gap the dumber they feel. This inverse relationship creates an inherent motivation to minimize effort, whether or not they’re succeeding. If they feel like they are succeeding, the bigger they want the gap to be, if they feel like they are failing, the smaller they want the gap to be.

If students redirect their focus from the scoreboard to the game of learning, an interesting thing happens. Focusing on learning creates a direct relationship between input and outcome: the more effort they invest, the greater the opportunity to learn. However, the calculus of competence is fundamentally different depending on how you define success. When the goal is to be smart, the formula is reduced to maximizing grades while minimizing effort. When the goal is to learn, the formula becomes about maximizing learning while optimizing effort. The more effective their effort, the more they can learn.

Not long ago a young man came to see me, distraught over his prospects of getting into a prestigious graduate school. He feared the possibility had slipped away due to his lackluster academic performance. As he described his situation, it became clear that his fixation on his grades was consuming enormous amounts of his attention. Through our discussion, he was able to redirect his attention from his focus on grades and the goal of graduate school to his love of material science -- a shift made easier by his resignation that graduate school was now out of reach due to his grades.

Over the next couple of weeks, he reported feeling less stressed and more excited about learning than he ever had in college. The results of his first round of midterms were so strong that graduate school was back on the table. With that realization, his attention shifted back to his grades and calculating what he would need to score on the remaining exams in order to be a competitive applicant. His performance tanked.

Focusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow. That is not to say that grades aren’t an important measurement of their performance -- measurements that influence, fairly or unfairly, their access to opportunity. But the point is, as clearly demonstrated in the case of the aspiring material-science graduate student, when students focus their energy through their attention on learning while optimizing effort, grades are a natural result of this effective learning process. In contrast, when they focus their energy through their attention on grades, learning may or may not result.

Even more important is the fact that when they set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it. I will never forget the excitement that I saw on the face of the young engineering student struggling with Russian literature when it dawned on her that she got to decide how she would show up for her learning. There is no shame in going all in, and just maybe the rewards will outweigh the risks.


Joseph Holtgreive is an assistant dean and director of the office of personal development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.


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