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Grades vs. Understanding for grad school

by murmillo
Tags: grad, grades, school
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murmillo
#1
Jan6-11, 12:13 PM
P: 118
Usually my professors emphasize to students that they should be concerned more about understanding the material, and then good grades will follow. But for some reason that doesn't seem to be happening to me, and I'm concerned because grad schools will only see the letter grade. For instance, I did very well in my differential geometry class last semester, as measured by my understanding of the material. On the first two midterms I got a perfect score and an almost-perfect score, and I got perfect scores on almost all the homework assignments, since I knew the material well. But I blew the final exam, which was worth about 40% of the grade, because it covered material that I didn't know would be on the exam, and so my final grade was not in the A-range. Isn't it true that if grad schools look at my transcript, they'll only see the grade? I'm concerned that they won't see that I worked very hard in the class and had mastered the material (except for the material that I didn't think was important but was the bulk of the final exam).

Another instance is when math professors give short, timed exams rather than take-home exams. In analysis, I had a fairly solid understanding of the material, but I couldn't answer the difficult questions quickly, so I didn't do so well. I think if I had more time, I would have done much better.

It's these kinds of things that frustrate me, because it's like, even if I've mastered the material, the way things work out prevents me from getting solid A's. So, what use is solid understanding of the math when grad schools only see mediocre grades?
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Jokerhelper
#2
Jan6-11, 12:20 PM
P: 183
Quote Quote by murmillo View Post
Usually my professors emphasize to students that they should be concerned more about understanding the material, and then good grades will follow. But for some reason that doesn't seem to be happening to me, and I'm concerned because grad schools will only see the letter grade. For instance, I did very well in my differential geometry class last semester, as measured by my understanding of the material. On the first two midterms I got a perfect score and an almost-perfect score, and I got perfect scores on almost all the homework assignments, since I knew the material well. But I blew the final exam, which was worth about 40% of the grade, because it covered material that I didn't know would be on the exam, and so my final grade was not in the A-range. Isn't it true that if grad schools look at my transcript, they'll only see the grade? I'm concerned that they won't see that I worked very hard in the class and had mastered the material (except for the material that I didn't think was important but was the bulk of the final exam).

Another instance is when math professors give short, timed exams rather than take-home examsLOL. In analysis, I had a fairly solid understanding of the material, but I couldn't answer the difficult questions quickly, so I didn't do so well. I think if I had more time, I would have done much better.

It's these kinds of things that frustrate me, because it's like, even if I've mastered the material, the way things work out prevents me from getting solid A's. So, what use is solid understanding of the math when grad schools only see mediocre grades?

That's how it is for everyone.
Ryker
#3
Jan6-11, 12:29 PM
P: 1,088
Well, I think you have to be honest with yourself in regards to whether you actually have mastered the material or not. For example, you say you didn't know some stuff would be on the exam and you yourself admit that you haven't mastered that. How did it happen that you didn't know it was going to be included? And how did other people manage to get good grades? I know this is hard and isn't pleasing to hear, but so many people claim they master the material, when in fact they should just be honest with themselves and admit that isn't completely true. I've been in this situation before, too, and have given myself false assurance after exams and such that I do indeed know the material, but that I just didn't perform well that time. But that is just fooling yourself. I mean, sure, it can happen here and there, but if you possess the knowledge of an A+ student, I don't really believe your average is going to be, say, B. And, again, don't take this reply as putting you down or anything, because it's not intended to do so. I can relate to what you're talking about, but from my experience this is mostly just delusion, and this is also the impression I got from reading your post. The sooner you realize that, the better.

If I'm mistaken, I apologize, but this is my honest opinion.

micromass
#4
Jan6-11, 12:38 PM
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Grades vs. Understanding for grad school

Quote Quote by murmillo View Post
except for the material that I didn't think was important but was the bulk of the final exam
In mathematics, EVERYTHING is important. If you want an A on an exam, then you better make sure you understand everything. Except of course, when the professor explicitly stated that you don't have to know it. But if he doesn't, then you better make sure you get it. In mathematics, it are the little details that make up the difference between an A and a B.

Of course, it can happen here and there, that you really did master the material, but for some reason you didn't get a good grade. That's alright. If it are just a couple of classes, then it's going to be allright.
However, if you don't get a good grade on most of the classes, then maybe you didn't master the material as well as you should...

I'm not saying this to get you down, but I'm just trying to be constructive here. Maybe you should change one or two things about how you study...
murmillo
#5
Jan6-11, 01:01 PM
P: 118
I think that I am honest with myself when it comes to whether I understand the material well. I mean, I understand that students who have mastered the material will generally score better than people who don't. In my geometry class, I worked very hard and spent the time needed to really understand the material, and I got A+'s on the midterm exams. If I had asked the professor exactly what kinds of things would be on the final exam, I probably would have gotten an A/A+ in the class. Instead, I just reviewed the old homework assignments, midterms, and the course notes, thinking that that was what would be tested. But it wasn't, and my grade went down dramatically because of that mistake. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when grad schools see my grade, they might think that I did a mediocre job throughout the whole course, e.g. B+'s throughout the whole course (I think for top grad schools, B+ is considered pretty mediocre). I'm worried that they won't see that I really had mastered almost all the material and that I'm a very hard worker, etc., but that I made basically one mistake that really hurt my grade.

On another note, I still think that hour-long in-class exams are unfair measures of conceptual understanding. I mean, some students just take longer than others. Yet grades are all the grad schools will see.
Jokerhelper
#6
Jan6-11, 01:10 PM
P: 183
Quote Quote by murmillo View Post
I think that I am honest with myself when it comes to whether I understand the material well. I mean, I understand that students who have mastered the material will generally score better than people who don't. In my geometry class, I worked very hard and spent the time needed to really understand the material, and I got A+'s on the midterm exams. If I had asked the professor exactly what kinds of things would be on the final exam, I probably would have gotten an A/A+ in the class. Instead, I just reviewed the old homework assignments, midterms, and the course notes, thinking that that was what would be tested. But it wasn't, and my grade went down dramatically because of that mistake. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when grad schools see my grade, they might think that I did a mediocre job throughout the whole course, e.g. B+'s throughout the whole course (I think for top grad schools, B+ is considered pretty mediocre). I'm worried that they won't see that I really had mastered almost all the material and that I'm a very hard worker, etc., but that I made basically one mistake that really hurt my grade.

On another note, I still think that hour-long in-class exams are unfair measures of conceptual understanding. I mean, some students just take longer than others. Yet grades are all the grad schools will see.
Wait, this whole thread was just for a single course? Oh for crying out load, it's a B+! You'll be fine!
micromass
#7
Jan6-11, 01:13 PM
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Well, at least now you know what mistake you made. Don't assume that you know what's going to be on the exam. Try to learn everything. Or ask the professor what's going to be on the exam.

If you correct that small mistake, and if you make A's on your next courses, then the grad commissions will know that you're a straight A student. A few B+ aren't that bad...
murmillo
#8
Jan6-11, 01:20 PM
P: 118
Jokerhelper: Well, I don't know. I mean, I have a feeling that to get into the top 40 or so grad schools requires outstanding grades all across the board. I mean, out of all the math classes I've taken, I've gotten only 1 A, with 2 A-'s, and most of them B+'s. My grades do show an upward trend, but still... The college I attend is known for having little grade inflation, but I don't think grad schools are going to care.
jgm340
#9
Jan6-11, 02:28 PM
P: 103
You know, I agree with you that take-home finals better test your ability than in-class finals.

I have a much better understanding of real analysis than I do of differential geometry. Differential Geometry had a take-home final, and I got an A. Real Variables had an in-class final, and I got a B+.

But you know what? Grades are monotone with the amount of effort you put in.

Both the grades "A" and "A-" are supposed to correspond to "excellent" coursework. I put in not much more than the bare minimum for Real Variables, so how am I to expect a grade of "excellent"? Just because I understood all the homework problems perfectly doesn't mean I deserve an excellent grade.

If you strive instead to do the best work you can in every course, regardless of what grade you have, then you won't have as many problems.

Anyway, with two classes (Real Variables and Complex Analysis), I have essentially blown my chances of being in the top 5% of the class GPA-wise. I'm kind of pissed, because for both classes it felt like I was doing fine until the final, but I'll take it as a motivation to prove myself in other ways.
deRham
#10
Jan6-11, 05:42 PM
P: 410
How did it happen that you didn't know it was going to be included? And how did other people manage to get good grades?
I think it sounded like in this case, the original poster made a bit of a mistake. After all, it's not like all the other midterm grades were poor too.

In mathematics, EVERYTHING is important. If you want an A on an exam, then you better make sure you understand everything.
Slight comment: in mathematics, EVERYTHING is not remotely conquerable or understandable (however, EVERYTHING taught precisely in the course may be). If one wants an A on the exam, make sure to outperform the rest of the class with the conditions of the test in mind, and understand to the best of your ability while focusing most on performance and class expectations.

Well, I think you have to be honest with yourself in regards to whether you actually have mastered the material or not.
In many cases, this is true. I think mastering the material tends to amount to doing tons of problems to achieve a thorough understanding, thinking about the big theorems and really deducing what implications they have, understanding their proofs very carefully, and usually if one has mastered the material, getting an A in the course should actually be pretty easy. Mastery of material is usually above and beyond what someone does in any course.

There is a difference between strongly understanding the material and mastering it. However, there's the issue. The little details are a necessity to mastering material, and sometimes people simply don't realize that they don't care about those little details. In fact, why should everyone want to master the material of every course they take? I think it ludicrous to suggest most strong students do -- they clearly favor certain courses, which may just independently stimulate them. However, performing better than everyone else, and quite well in general will earn one a better grade, regardless of mastery or not; this is something which people who take a simplistic view on grades need to swallow.

In this case though, it seems the poster did care about mastery, but was misinformed about a few class expectations, which is unfortunate, but my advice holds for next time: know what getting an A really means.

Another instance is when math professors give short, timed exams rather than take-home exams. In analysis, I had a fairly solid understanding of the material, but I couldn't answer the difficult questions quickly, so I didn't do so well. I think if I had more time, I would have done much better.
Try to take more classes with take-home exams with larger windows to work. Lest someone bring up the attractive yet flawed argument that hey, if the other guy can solve problems quicker than you, isn't he just more on top of the material, let me myself ask how it is that such a performance indicates thorougher mastery than being able to solve several problems with careful, thorough writeup over the span of a week? After all, in both cases the course participants are given equal time. In reality, there is something called reacting quickly which becomes very important in timed tests, which is really not indicative of mastery -- it's being able to read the question and figure out what it's asking and responding marginally faster; given the complexity of these steps, someone who is somewhat slower in each would lose so much time relative to a 1 hour duration that it can become very problematic. In fact, sometimes some of the students who did well on the timed exam may perform worse on a collection of problems that provokes more thought and requires one to really fiddle with the course material.

I think measuring mastery, in short, is different from measuring quick reaction time to key concepts from a course. And sadly, some course formats favor the latter over the former.
twofish-quant
#11
Jan6-11, 10:49 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by murmillo View Post
Isn't it true that if grad schools look at my transcript, they'll only see the grade?
This is for physics grad school. I've been told that med and law school is different.

They'll look first at the course that you are taking. Getting B's in differential geometry is better than getting A+'s in consumer math. If you got a B in the class and have some A's in others, I wouldn't worry.

It's these kinds of things that frustrate me, because it's like, even if I've mastered the material, the way things work out prevents me from getting solid A's. So, what use is solid understanding of the math when grad schools only see mediocre grades?
What was the actual grade? If it's a B, that's decent. If you are getting B's in some really hard classes, that's good.
twofish-quant
#12
Jan6-11, 10:53 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by murmillo View Post
Jokerhelper: Well, I don't know. I mean, I have a feeling that to get into the top 40 or so grad schools requires outstanding grades all across the board.
They don't.

I mean, out of all the math classes I've taken, I've gotten only 1 A, with 2 A-'s, and most of them B+'s.
Which is pretty decent. It won't hurt if you get some more A's, but don't go crazy about it. The big danger is that if you go crazy over grades, you'll burn out, in which case you won't get in anywhere.

My grades do show an upward trend, but still... The college I attend is known for having little grade inflation, but I don't think grad schools are going to care.
Yes they will. Grades are only part of your application, and you'll be submitting letters of references, and GRE scores and other stuff.
deluks917
#13
Jan7-11, 02:13 AM
P: 367
Whats worked best for me when I want to increase my speed and reliability in answering questions for a class is to do much harder preoblems (even if they take a long time). For example after doing the problems in Artin's algebra (which aren't hard) I found I could the problems in Gallian's algbra in minutes. The same for Hubbards Multi-variable Calc book 's problem after doing the questions from Spivaks Calculus on Manifolds (which are pretty for an undergrad book imo).
Nick R
#14
Jan7-11, 10:45 PM
P: 70
Congratulations. You've just figured out that grades, exams and other audits in school are a big, gay game. But if you want to stay in the game, you have to play the game. And trust me, it only gets gayer in grad school - grad school for physics is more like an initiation than a learning thing.

Reading the text and doing the exercises enable understanding. But your course grades depend almost exclusively on timed exams, which really have zero to do with understanding. Timed exams are all about preparation and memorization. From the way a professor talks, the assignments he gives and past examinations he gives, you generally know exactly what sort of preparation is required to succeed on his exams.

If you ask me, preparing for exams is a bigger waste of time than playing video games or something. Especially big exams that take months of preparation. I mean REALLY - when I carefully read a section in the text and take notes on it, then do the exercises related to that section I'm DONE learning that material. I don't need to rub the formulas all over my face to transfer their essence to my brain or something. But this is what is necessary so oh well.

What is confusing is why academia, the brains of society, continues to brainlessly follow stupid traditions like administering timed exams and having "qual exams".
lawsofform
#15
Jan7-11, 10:48 PM
P: 16
Quote Quote by Nick R View Post
And trust me, it only gets gayer in grad school
Where did you go to grad school, ancient Greece?
twofish-quant
#16
Jan8-11, 02:21 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by Nick R View Post
Congratulations. You've just figured out that grades, exams and other audits in school are a big, gay game. But if you want to stay in the game, you have to play the game. And trust me, it only gets gayer in grad school - grad school for physics is more like an initiation than a learning thing.
That's only marginally true up until the qualifying exams. Things are *very* different after you finish the quals, and then thing are *very, very* different once you get your Ph.D. There is a game, sure, but the rules change a lot.

But your course grades depend almost exclusively on timed exams, which really have zero to do with understanding. Timed exams are all about preparation and memorization.
It depends on the nature of the timed test. You can get rid of a lot of the memorization element of timed tests by allowing cheat sheets or making the test open book, which I think is a good idea.

I mean REALLY - when I carefully read a section in the text and take notes on it, then do the exercises related to that section I'm DONE learning that material. I don't need to rub the formulas all over my face to transfer their essence to my brain or something. But this is what is necessary so oh well.
True, and in college, what ended up happening was that after I got to a certain level of understanding, that I decided that it was worth my while to learn other things. So I got B's rather than A's. I didn't get into the two grad schools of my choice, but I got in. It wasn't until after I got my Ph.D. that I found out that by aiming for understanding rather than grades, that it really *did* pay off in a big way. Instead of trying to get the A, I did a lot of computer programming and just reading about economics and poetry. *Really* useful once I got my Ph.D.

What is confusing is why academia, the brains of society, continues to brainlessly follow stupid traditions like administering timed exams and having "qual exams".
1) Because it a cheap and quick way of classifying people. 2) Because much of the purpose of undergraduate work is get you a piece of paper that can get turned into money, and education only supports the purpose. 3) Because the social systems aren't designed, they end up existing because of historical accident. 4) Because people haven't figured out a better system.

Imagine a factory assembly line making widgets. Now look at the university, and you are the widget being made. A lot should make sense.

Reading the history of higher education (and lower education) is extremely fascinating. One thing that you quickly figure out is that education has a social purpose. One of the social purposes of the system of undergraduate education is to train people into becoming corporate cogs in a bureaucratic machine. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that.
Choppy
#17
Jan8-11, 09:20 AM
Sci Advisor
P: 2,669
Quote Quote by Nick R View Post
What is confusing is why academia, the brains of society, continues to brainlessly follow stupid traditions like administering timed exams and having "qual exams".
It's nice to sit back and complain, but what would you propose as an alternative?

Part of the purpose of academics is to certify that students have a sufficient understanding of the material - particularly when they go on to the next level. So testing is necessary. You could remove the time limits to an extent, but how practical will that be for closed book exams? You could have take-home exams, but really what guarantee do you have that students are doing the work on their own? You run into the same issue with group projects - inevitably there are some individuals who will carry their group because they refuse anything less than perfection and others who write up a title page for the final report. Ultimately, when you look at an undergraduate education as a whole, the assessment is made up of all sorts of forms of evaluations - not just timed exams.

At the graduate level, the assessment is less by timed exams. Sure you have your course work and perhaps a qualifying exam, but as you move on, the exams move into oral format. Sometimes they are formal as in candidacy examinations and thesis defences, but other times they are informal - conference presentations, committee meetings and even one-on-one mentoring with your supervisor - where you should come away with a personal understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses.
deRham
#18
Jan8-11, 01:06 PM
P: 410
So testing is necessary. You could remove the time limits to an extent, but how practical will that be for closed book exams? You could have take-home exams, but really what guarantee do you have that students are doing the work on their own?
My message regarding questions like this has always been that it depends on the course. A course in algebraic topology probably will be graded very differently from a course in multivariable calculus, unless the latter is a sophisticated, theoretical introduction that is more like a calculus on manifolds course. If the course is just a service course to a massive population, then it will probably be basic enough that a few timed tests with basic checks of the key concepts will be enough to assess understanding, and to a degree just getting a grasp on the sample problems should allow good students to do well.

On the other hand, with more advanced material which is primarily designed to familiarize a student with theory, lots of homework assignments plus a take-home exam seems to work extremely well. Yes, students may collaborate to an extent, but my observation has been that when the load of work is sufficient in volume and sophistication, it no longer becomes easy to just fudge it. It takes a lot of work to really write up problems fully in clarity, and I think people get held to much better standards when they have time to write things up at home. In a challenging enough class, the less hardcore students give up...many solutions to problems will be subtle, and not things which someone with a lesser understanding can just easily copy.

Again, invariably it will be best to allow for collaboration on the work. This leads to good discussions between students and professors on the work. All this only works in a relatively smaller course.


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