This past year I tutored a high school freshman in introductory science. We will call him Adam. Adam struggled mightily with most of the subjects he was taking at the time, and seemed much more interested in slacking off and relaxing once he got home rather than putting in the effort to study and do his homework. I was even privy to several of the rather unpleasant adult “tantrums” he would throw if he realized that he was expected to work with me for longer than he initially expected.
Naturally, I tried to impress upon him the importance of working hard, since I knew from first-hand experience that the only way to get a higher grade in a class with which you are struggling is to study, study, and study some more until you truly understand the material. Adam, however, had no interest in doing this. In arguing with his mother about why he didn’t want to have to work with me for three hours (instead of the two upon which he had planned), his mother tried to pull the card, “Wouldn’t you like to pass this class with a grade better than a C?” His response ran: “I don’t care about passing the class with a higher grade, Mom! I’m just a 2.2 GPA student, and I’m not smart enough to be anything better!”
A Chance to Excel
I quickly responded that this wasn’t true and that he didn’t have to be a 2.2 student if he studied and worked hard at his assignments. He shrugged and prepared to argue more with his mother. Obviously, he wasn’t buying my statement. So I had to ponder over something very serious. How was I to get him to understand that the grades he was receiving were not a measure of his intelligence but a measure of the work he put into understanding the course materials? I couldn’t see a clear way, since he didn’t want to put in the work – at least, he didn’t want to put in any more than the massive amount he already perceived he was putting in – and so wouldn’t be able to see that his work was paying off.
Fortunately for me, he received a prompt from his science professor for an essay which we also knew was to be the question for his final examination. Here, finally, was a chance for me to really push him to excel. I had him write down everything he knew about the prompt and then had him find out more and make connections within the topics which he had already written down. I didn’t let him settle for putting down an answer just because “it was what the teacher had said.” He could put it into the essay only when he understood why it went in there.
Finally, we had an essay which I considered would be quite good – if only he could remember everything he had written down and actually understand it. So I put him on a regimen. I told him to rewrite that same essay at least every other day, if not every day, so that the knowledge would stick in his brain and he would be able to repeat what he had learned for the final examination.
And what do you know, it worked. He got a 190 out of 200 on his final because he actually put in the work and followed the regimen I had assigned him. I expressed to him how proud I was and reminded him that it was his hard work that had paid off. He, being a typical teenage boy, shrugged it off.
Whether or not Adam actually understood that it was his hard work that had gotten him that excellent score, I don’t know for certain, but I’m hoping it made an impression. And I dearly hope that all those other students under the delusion that they are somehow unintelligent because of the grades they are earning will come to understand this truth as well: It’s not your intelligence that is being measured, but rather the effort you put in to learn and understand the material. Grades are a measure of hard work, not of intelligence or ability. Only when you put in the effort to try and master a difficult subject will you see the results for which you are hoping, and this same ability to work hard and overcome difficulties will inevitably help you with greater concerns than GPAs.