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Successful fakes

  1. Apr 26, 2013 #1
    successful "fakes"

    There are students, who appear to not have any depth of knowledge, who are nonetheless very successful at the undergraduate level. This is very disheartening for me. I want to call these people "fakes", but am I in the right for doing so? I want to understand: if these people get more opportunities in the end, then is academia doing its job? Is this just part of the reality that I should accept?

    Here's an anecdote. I go to a top 2 school in math. I'm taking a proof-based math class. I form a study group with two other people. This one person from my study group consistently shows up late to the sessions which we use to work on the problem set (late meaning the night before it's due: 12-1AM). Sometimes he can do some of the problems, some of the time he can't. He gives each problem maybe 30 minutes of thought (because at this point, it's too late to spend *too* much time on it), then asks us to explain it or searches for the solution online if he can't do it. I very clearly remember him making a comment which effectively meant that he really had no confidence in his reasoning. This person earned an A+ in the class. He was younger than both of us (by a year), had already taken a number of serious math courses, and was taking a heavy load.

    What am I supposed to make of this? Of course I'm jealous, but what I'm asking is: how *should* I react?
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 26, 2013 #2
    Hi tahw and welcome to the forum.

    I'm not a mentor here but I will just share my thoughts. The situation that you described is not only limited to undergrad education. It is in the grad school, research community and almost every where. What you described is two different philosohpies (or two life styles if you whish). One style seeks the maximum gain with the least effort (always seeking the law hanging fruit) while the other style projects for the longer term gains and seeks establishing one's presence and contribution slowly and steadily but solidly. It is up to every person to choose what philishophy they adopt for themselves.
    In your situation I'd rather focuse on myself rahter than starting blaming others for their choices. If I firmly believe that I'm able to learn (and subsequently contribute) then I'd go ahead in the path I chose for myself (with careful planning) and even if it takes longer time and even if on the surface I may look much behind than others, at some point I will be able to gain the fruits of the seeds that I planted!
  4. Apr 26, 2013 #3

    Very nicely said. Have you read any of Brian Tracy's books? :approve:

    I have had similar experiences to those of the OP. There are students in my undergrad who do something along the lines described above. They play it very safe with course selection (avoiding "tough-grading" professors, courses which are infamous for difficulty, etc), pad their GPAs and paper looks.
    It works alright until it comes time to apply to graduate school or solve real-world problems. The latter hit you in the face with full uncertainty and no solution manuals. They, of course, do alright with grad school applications and get admitted somewhere. However, along the way, they all score very poorly on Physics GRE (follow the correlation?) and complain that "it doesnt really test physics knowledge." Maybe it does, maybe it doesnt. What is clear is that they dont learn to trust and stand on their own mind and be quick with their basic physics thinking. This aspect is most baffling to me - if you want to do research or even engineering for living, why set yourself up for such failure? Why not teach yourself to trust your mind in problem solving? Alas ...

    As the guy(girl?) above me said, it is truly a difference in philosophies. My choice is to get everything I can out of both myself and the courses I take every semester. In addition, I explore as I go along in my studies and look at various books, online notes, etc. I believe having an A- gpa average instead of A is entirely worth it!

    I will let you know in about a year of my results as I will be aplpying to grad schools this Fall. But then again, its a long-term endeavor, so it may take a bit longer to pay off. However, I have no doubts that it will.
  5. Apr 26, 2013 #4
    You could always kick him out of your study group if he's not contributing.
  6. Apr 26, 2013 #5
    The guy in my study group took difficult classes. Even in a system which ostensibly has high standards, he was able to fly through difficult classes with what appeared to be minimal work, little discipline, and uncertainty of the math involved. At least, that is the impression I got from the single course I was taking with him.

    Of course, he could have been very talented with mathematics. But it really did not seem that way at the time. I was hoping somebody, possible an educator, can explain how this is possible.

    I wasn't really bothered by it.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2013
  7. Apr 26, 2013 #6


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    If it isn't directly harming your own grades, why should you react at all?
  8. Apr 26, 2013 #7
    If a piece of information doesn't have immediate (negative) consequences for me, then I shouldn't form any thoughts in response to that information?
  9. Apr 26, 2013 #8


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    You can have whatever thoughts you want but if there is no substance beyond that then what's the issue?
  10. Apr 26, 2013 #9
    Doesnt sound like it.

    Kicking him/her out of your study group was the only part where you had any control over the outcome unlike his/her grad school applications or future. Seems weird to fuss over that which you dont have any influence over the situation and glaze over that which you do.
  11. Apr 26, 2013 #10
    I don't know what you're asking. What substance do you expect?

    I found out his final grade... at the end of the semester. So, yeah, it bothers me now and it didn't then. Plus, it's not like he didn't contribute at all.
  12. Apr 27, 2013 #11
    While this is certainly a pragmatic attitude, I think the point is about having faith in the educational system as a whole. Since, on the surface, universities set themselves up to be aribters of worth and truth, it is not an irrelevant issue. Those of us who have been around academia for more than a few years know that universities, while amazing places, are also very human and have many flaws. The first time you encounter this cognitive dissonance can be jarring.

    In the end, though, I think the first reply from Useful nucleus is the best approach.
  13. Apr 27, 2013 #12
    I did not read any of his but you actually made me look up some of his books on amazon.
  14. Apr 27, 2013 #13
    This is pretty sad. I think this could be related to how it is really difficult to put questions that really test whether you know the material when classes get more advanced (i.e. most of the learning takes place grappling with difficult questions in the homework). It is simply not possible to put in several questions that would take hours to solve in a midterm that goes for up to 2 - 3 hours (never even had a midterm that was this long). So, the tests often end up being reduced to knowing very basic concepts and theorems and aren't a particularly good measure of your understanding of the material. The other common case is that everyone fails the exam and I only get a decent grade because of the curve. Unfortunately, I sort of feel like the person described in the OP at times since my grades are decent, but not at all reflective of my shallow understanding of the material (despite putting a lot of effort into understanding it). Perhaps the advanced courses that I'm taking are too difficult for me, but the other courses available don't challenge me at all, so I'm not sure what to do in this case. I'm sorry for the (slight) tangent, but I just wanted to show that the situation may be more complicated than it looks like.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2013
  15. Apr 28, 2013 #14


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    To excel in exams you need to know the material, it doesn't matter if during the course the pupil didn't come to class or didn't solve most of the problems by himself. He just needs to know to solve the problems in the exam/s, which most of the time are exercises that he met during the course.

    It doesn't mean he will be successful as a researcher, but he might be a good leech on someone's else's work.
  16. Apr 28, 2013 #15
    Well, frankly, the only thing you could do is to kick him from your study group. As for looking up solutions, that's one way to learn. Better to do that and understand the problem at hand rather than kill yourself over it and not get it all in the end. You said it yourself he gives it an honest, albeit shorter than you, effort. And to get an A+ you can't just "fake" it, you do need to know the material, otherwise you won't do well in an exam setting, either.

    I do sympathize with you, though.
  17. Apr 28, 2013 #16


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    OP, you could also try to learn something here... about getting better results in less time. I don't see any reason to call this person "fake".

    Maybe this guy really is very clever (he got an A+ in the end, apparently), and was just not interested in this particular course. For all you know, he could be spending three days a week on a single (different) class, learning it as throughoutly as he can. Or he could be trying to learn as much in as little time as he can (you said he's been taking lots of different courses), which might also mean connecting lots of different fields.

    There are different styles or working and learning. Sometimes the best approach is to learn a little bit of everything, and then spend your research career exporting successful technique #A to field #2, where it solves a major problem and no one has ever heard of it. And no, this is not at all uncommon, and it can be a very valuable contribution.
  18. Apr 28, 2013 #17
    Or he could be working on undergrad research.
  19. Apr 29, 2013 #18
    Another aspect may be that his intellectual abilities favor more test taking type skills as opposed to open ended problem solving skills. You probably understand the material on an intuitive level while this student grasps this same information, superficially, but perhaps with more detail. I can see how this bothers you as these types of situations do not justify our preconcieved notion that "honest hard work" pays off, while "slackers, and short cutters" will lose. The truth is...that isn't true. The problem lies more so in your expectations (which is normal) than the situation itself. Here is a very depressing saying I have developed over the years somewhat pertinate to this topic:

    "life isn't fair, and life doesn't care."

    Hopefully you'll never learn the true meaning of those words :)
  20. Apr 29, 2013 #19
    There is nothing you can do other than strive to get the best grades you can to not close any future doors, that's it.

    I have run into this issue a lot. I know fellow students that fully admit they memorize whole solutions for exams and manage to get higher grades than I ever could as I work through them as fast as my brain and hands allow*, but later they retain nothing (or in some cases, do poorly on the exam if it's anything different from past homework/coursework problems). I once heard something as extreme as "I didn't remember how to find eigenvectors" from a 1st year grad student at a top 20 school at another forum who took a free swing at the qualifying exam upon arrival. *(An anecdote: I just had 2 of my senior finals and knew how to answer every single question, but was cut short of time in both of them and my grade will most likely be embarrassingly low).

    I never memorized more than a few equations for exams and always sought to derive everything else from scratch the "honest" way. It's all fine and dandy until you realize your grades suffer as a consequence and they are really all that counts when it comes to both jobs and graduate school (maybe job interviews add an additional filter, but I'm sure even some clueless people still get hired instead of competent people with unimpressive grades)

    Reading threads like this: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=649034 frustrates me greatly, since it shows there are people out there getting degrees from respected universities with good grades but really no understanding or ability to solve original problems at all.

    I lived and breathed physics during my undergrad, I bust my butt working to learn things the "right" and rigorous way, often mentoring fellow undergrads that came to me for help for homework problems or explanations before a final (typically those who left things for the last moment) and earning the praise of many lecturers and advisers, and yet my unimpressive grades now bar me from getting into a graduate program. Makes me wonder what the point of working so hard to be an honest student was now that I'm finishing my bachelors and have failed to get into any grad program or research internship (so far).

    Life isn't fair indeed, and no one really cares if you have the knowledge base and passion for your subject if your grades aren't substantially better than the next person's when it comes to getting selected for grad school. The romantic idea that people who work hard get far in life isn't always true and you should probably imitate what your classmates do to get your grades and secure a career. But you should definitely try to learn things along the way in your spare time, over summer breaks, etc. if you really love your subject, maybe someday it will come in handy and your mind and memories are really the only things you get to take to your grave, I think.
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2013
  21. Apr 30, 2013 #20
    If your classmate is taking lots of other difficult classes, then it's likely that he/she is just spending much more time on another class. This also could be a case of your classmate being too "advanced" for the class.

    Here's an example of what I mean. This semester, I am taking the second semester of ODE's 2 (systems, nonlinear). I took ODE's 1 a year ago with a very very challenging professor that made me dig deep into the material. Also, I skipped ODE's 2 temporarily and took PDE's with the same challenging professor. This semester, I have a different, comparatively easy professor for ODE's 2 (with a very challenging load in other classes). While many of the other students have struggled, I have breezed through the course. I only show up for turning in homework/ tests and I am going to receive an A or an A+. Like your classmate, I try and spend as little time on the homework as possible (out of educational priorities not laziness/partying). Many times I am a little behind, obviously, and do not know all of the little details of the course but with my earlier background, mastering the material only takes a long night of studying. Early on in my education, I would have had to spend much more time to gain the same understanding, but now the concepts make sense much much quicker.

    Keep in mind that I am not in a top 2 school for math, I am a physics major, and the classes I'm describing are probably much simpler than what you went though. However, I think what I am describing can still apply to more difficult classes. You don't know your classmate's background. It could have been he already self- studied the material/ went through it in other classes.

    However, I highly doubt that if your classmate received an A+ from a rigorous class in a top 2 math school that he has little understanding of the subject matter and shouldn't be labeled a "fake".
  22. May 1, 2013 #21
    Sounds like me! The reason he gets an A is because on a test, you have to go with what you feel is best. When doing homework, it is easy to overthink a problem, and believe your thinking is completely wrong.

    Like him, I have no confidence about my work and in homework I always think I am wrong, it really isn't healthy TBH. The way I look at it, everyone else just happens to KNOW what to do in every problem. So when I work with others, I feel really self-conscious because they seem to know exactly what to do, and I think I don't because i feel they know something about the problem I don't. But when it comes to test, I don't have time to second guess myself, so I'm forced to go with my gut reaction on how to solve the problem. Maybe that's what he is thinking when he works with you guys. You guys are just above him, and he doesn't want to look dumb by offering a "stupid" solution.

    This might be a common problem, but just offering my insight into what might be going on in his head. Of course, this is all just speculation that he is similar to me, he could just be blowing you guys off.

    Anyway, good luck!
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