A Shark Chomp versus a Mosquito Bite: A Primer on Mental Attitude in Writing

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Wilia Caruthers was distraught!  Her first essay came back from Criminal Justice: An Introduction, and it was a D!  There was now no chance for her to pass the course, she thought. No doubt the professor has washed his hands of her, Wilia’s GPA would undoubtedly go down, and her chance of getting into grad school was certainly lessened. “Oh, no, oh, no, oh no – I am so stupid,” thought Wilia! Not so fast, Wilia!  Your life in the course, in school, and for grad school is not over – not by a long shot!  What may now seem like a shark chomp with a poor grade can turn out to be only a mosquito bite – if you never, ever focus on only one grade. It’s a mindset many folks have when receiving one poor assignment grade, but it’s also quite easy to turn around. 

No one can blame a student, a professional – anyone – for having an initial reaction of distraught, horror, and dismay when receiving a poor grade. After all, no one turns in an assignment with the thought of, “Oh, boy – I sure hope I fail this assignment” or “How discouraging it would be to receive an A.” Aiming for that brass ring of a good grade is simply endemic; it is taught to and reminded for us since our first days in school.  Examples abound: of students not passing courses, flunking out of college, and not being accepted to grad school; of employees not being promoted, getting fired, losing stature because they failed one or two college courses. With these thoughts so constant in folks’ minds for so many years, it certainly is understandable how one poor grade can send someone into a tailspin.

Wilia’s professor had Zoom meetings with all his students, and when meeting with Wilia to discuss her course progress, he immediately knew she was unhappy. When he learned the reason, it was what he had experienced from hundreds of students before Wilia: focusing on one grade, rather than looking at the entire course. This resulted in many students losing focus or interest in a course, and often failing or dropping the course. He had spent much efforts in recent years trying to thwart this, and they seemed to be working, as far fewer students receiving a poor first grade or two were not participating in or leaving the class. Wilia could easily be one of these students, and he offered her several guidelines to help her attitude.

This is the professor’s suggestions, what he called “Never, Ever Focus on One or Two Poor Grades:” 

  • Remember that a Final Grade is the result of all assignments in a course, not just one. Everybody has had a poor assignment grade or two at some point in school, yet it is the total effort put into a class that earns that Final Grade.
  • Embrace the feedback on any assignment – it will improve the next effort.   Any assignment – poor or not – can be used as a crucial guide of what not to do (as well as what to do) for future assignments.
  • Great people in history had school failings. Albert Einstein failed a math course, Harrison Ford (the Academy Award-winning actor) failed a philosophy course, Charles Darwin failed a biology class, Ang Lee (the Academy Award-winning director)  failed his college entrance exams – but all of these famous folks (and many more) persevered and succeeded.
  • A trove of PG students before you had a poor grade or two – but succeeded. Many successful PG students and PG graduates did poorly on one or two assignments. Yet they went on to receive their degrees and secure excellent professional employment!
  • Always ask if confusion arises. If more clarification is needed on any assignment feedback always ask the professor for more clarity. Being confused about or not understanding a professor’s assignment input can lead to the same mistakes, as well as a deeper grade depression, neither of which anyone wants.

After reading these points, Wilia realized she had spent too much time letting one grade overtake her life. Her professor wrapped up his guidelines with one sentence he told Wilia to keep next to her computer:  “The solar system is made up of many planets, not just Earth.”  She also was reminded how too often she would let one reprimand at work become an indictment of her professional career, which she now understood was simply not true. The idea of focusing on one error, one miscalculation, one misstep as cause to tank a school class or an employment career: how silly, Wilia now thought.  

She went back to her first assignment, the one with the D grade. Yes, there was extensive feedback, but Wilia was so narrowed on her grade that she overlooked the comments. Reading them she could immediately see why she earned that low grade, and Wilia took a suggestion from one of her classmates and used the comments as a checklist so she could be sure they would not again occur.  It worked: on her next assignment Wilia received a B, a nice improvement. The bonus to this was her overall course grade had gone up.  

Wilia learned a valuable lesson from which a large number of folks could benefit: to focus on one grade is simply stupid!

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