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Small differences that make a big difference to your grades
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small differences that make a big difference to your grades

by Louise Rebecca Chapman

Some of us are intellectual bulldozers in sixth gear; others of us are drifting along the academic year on autopilot, resisting breaking into a sweat, and possibly believing that doing so would scarcely make a difference anyway. Maybe you have been getting the same calibre of grades since you can remember, and achieving any higher, you think, could only ever be down to a fluke. Perhaps this is true of you — maybe the very top grades aren't naturally or realistically within your intellectual remit, but that shouldn't stop you doing even slightly better. Good grades aren't only the preserve of the intellectual elite. In this article, I am going to share with you a sprinkling of golden nuggets that could enable you to achieve your best grades yet.

Identify your Learning Style

When it comes to achieving your potential, you have to reflect on how you study best, and this can require some investigation. You may think that the only legitimate study method is the traditional textbook and notepad set-up — it is drilled into us from an early age that success comes to those of us who have the stamina to plough through greying textbooks from beginning to end, completing all the exercise boxes along the way. And our experiences seem to confirm this assumption: witnessing droves of Oxford-bound geeks in school libraries apparently engrossed in textbooks that, to the rest of us, have all the appeal of soggy sandwiches.

Well, for some people, this is the recipe for success — it plays to their strengths: it complements their unique learning style. But we all have a different learning style. What works best for you could prove disastrous for me. So, under Neil Fleming's VARK learning styles inventory, you can discover the learning style that will enable you to make the time invested into studying count for so much more. In Fleming's short questionnaire, you can discover whether you are a Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinaesthetic or Multimodal learner. Studies have shown that students who cater to their personal learning style prepare more effectively for exams, and ultimately secure higher grades. You can take the VARK questionnaire here:

Don't Be a Busy Fool

Throughout my academic career, I have witnessed a broad and colourful spectrum of students: those who effortlessly enrolled into Cambridge, and just as effortlessly rolled out with a First-class degree, and then those who (bless their hearts) spent their lives strapped to their study desks, only to produce yet another dismal and distressing display on results day. Finally, there are those in-between, who are neither fatally cursed with the gene for academic hopelessness, but aren't quite as fortunate to have been born with a foot into the door of Cambridge. What is this thusness? What is the reason for this thusness?

Well, if you must know, life isn't fair. If you find yourself at the top or the bottom of this hierarchy, then, I think it is not unreasonable to assume, it was your destiny. But most of us fall into the curvaceous mid-point of this bell-curve, and there is in fact quite a lot we can do to improve our positioning. And the real secret here is expediency.

Take short cuts. Read selectively. Be extra discriminating. Keep the endgame in focus at all times. A friend of mine who, to all intents and purposes, has the academic record of a genius, once gave me advice that continues to resonate like a heavenly tuning fork: do what you need to do, but no more. I didn't expect to hear that from him: First-class honours in Philosophy from York, the same again in Clinical Medicine from Oxford, and an illustrious post-graduate CV, including UCL and Cambridge. 'Be shrewd — read study guides instead of your set-texts if you're time-pressed — cherry-pick from your syllabus in order to play to your strengths.' These instructions, in the hands of an astute and discerning student is like gold dust, and I had a powerful moment of anagnorisis upon receipt of this advice.

Naturally though, this advice, in the wrong hands, could be ruinous. If you're already unmotivated and uninspired, then giving you advice that seems to perpetuate your bad habits is not going to help. But if you truly love (nay worship) your subject, then guidance that recommends being clever with your time and resources makes a lot of sense. It is possible to be extremely effective by employing an expedient strategy.

Exploit All the Resources you Can

For those of us who are, or have been, autodidacts, you can surely bear witness to the lonely and often featureless existence of studying outside of a traditional college or university setting. Often armed with only a reading list, the nine-month academic year appears a daunting and testing prospect, particularly if, having taken the VARK questionnaire, it turns out that you learn best from lectures and discursive activities. 'OK', you might think, 'how the hell am I going to weather a year of solitary textbook learning? Surely I will go mad?'

Well, very possibly yes. But before you really allow the darkness to creep in, do some research. Trawl the Internet. You will be astounded at what you will find.

Philosophy may seem to be a fairly esoteric discipline, and you might worry that the laypeople of the Internet would shun its initial obscurity. But wait until you discover the lists of lectures, podcasts, revision-notes, and debates on the topics that you are studying. Universities across the world are publishing lecture series that you can access for free — sitting quietly on the Internet, waiting for you to click through and pluck all the juicy knowledge nuggets. It's as simple as going onto, where universities across the world are uploading lecture series on Logic, Ethics, Politics, Knowledge — and, well, you name it. Or how about YouTube with its extensive catalogue of Oxford, Harvard and Yale lectures? Perhaps even log into iTunes and search for your module topics on there. The Internet is giving autodidacts the opportunity to enjoy a world-class education for free. The only hard work you need to do is seek out these pearls of wisdom, consume and assimilate them, and then prepare a victory dance for results day. I know I did.

Final Thoughts

For what it's worth, I found the life of an autodidact insanely hard, and this Autumn I'm giving it up to study Philosophy full-time at King's College London. Thankfully, my time spent as a distance learner has been highly revelatory, and intensely rewarding. I made the most of the resources I had to hand, including my exceptional tutor, Dr. Geoffrey Klempner, who helped me score a set of straight First Class grades in my summer examinations. But beyond my tutor, I have to commend my own resourcefulness and expediency: without these weapons in my arsenal, I could be sitting in a very different portion of the bell-curve.

© Louise Rebecca Chapman 2013

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