3 Ways to Improve Your Grade in a Difficult Class

Ways to Improve Your Grade

by Julie Jules Troyer Ph.D.

There is no magic pill that will help you improve your grade in a difficult class but there are ways of approaching the class and the material that could greatly improve your grade. The three best tips for students of all ability levels to improve their grades in any class are: 1) Asking good questions, 2) Actively listening in class, and 3) Actively reading the materials provided for the class. These three basic tips are much easier to list than to enact, thus some prompts and questions designed to guide putting these tips into practice are listed below.

A. How to ask good questions

a. Identifying what you know you know or know you don’t know

  • i. Do you know the definition of a term or concept?
  • ii. Can you elaborate on a topic by providing any more information than a definition?
  • iii. Do you agree with a theory or use of a technique?
  • iv. Can you think of examples where you have seen this theory, concept, or term in your life?
  • v. Can you think of other classes where you could connect or apply the idea?
  • vi. Is there any research that applies or tests these ideas? If you don’t know, look it up!
  • vii. Have you seen anything on TV or in a movie that illustrates this idea?
  • viii. Could you apply this in your profession? How?
  • ix. Do you see why this term/concept is included in the chapter or module? Can you see how it connects to other ideas presented in this section?
  • x. Are you interested in this theory/term/concept? If not why?

b. Having the confidence to pose a good question. Students often think posing a question shows they are ignorant and is a sign of weakness. It is actually quite the opposite! It takes great knowledge and wisdom to pose a good question. It is important to overcome the misconception that questions are a sign of ignorance. Questions can be used to acquire more knowledge, interest in a topic, or to connect the material or find a way to apply it in the real world. Questions help us build more elaborate and complex structures of understanding about topics.

B. How to actively listen

a. Don’t passively receive information in a lecture, actively connect with it

  • i. Engage in internal dialogue periodically through the lecture
  • ii. Take notes but don’t automatically write down everything the professor is saying. Attempt to figure out what is important and what is not.
  1. Does the professor mention this a few times? If so it is probably important.
  2. . Does the professor pause when the topic is introduced? If so it is probably important.
  3. If a term is defined in the textbook the same way it is being defined by the professor in class. Don’t copy it down again, instead think about what the definition really means.
  • iii. Take part in discussions. Don’t just listen to other students and the professor talk in class. Get involved! Even if you are shy, actively engaging with others will help you understand the material better.
  1. Ask yourself if you agree with what the professor is saying.
  2. Ask yourself if you have heard, seen, or experienced anything like the concept your learning about anywhere in your life.
  3. Make mental or physical notes about things you want to know more about or are curious about.

b. Don’t think that just by showing up to the class you are really listening. Don’t fool yourself. We often daydream; our minds wander to what we are going to eat for dinner or thoughts about how uncomfortable the chair we are sitting in is. It takes effort to really pay attention and truly listen.

C. How to actively read

a. Don’t passively receive information when reading, actively connect with it

  • i. Engage in internal dialogue periodically through the process of reading
  • ii. Take notes but don’t automatically write down everything in the chapter (I have seen almost every word in certain students textbooks highlighted). Attempt to figure out what is important and what is not.
  1.  Ask yourself if you agree with what the author is saying.
  2. Ask yourself if you have heard, seen, or experienced anything like the concept your learning about anywhere in your life.
  3. Make mental or physical notes about things you want to know more about or are curious about.
  • iii. Take part in discussions with classmates or friends about what you are reading. Teach your roommate, boyfriend or girlfriend, or best friend about what you are learning in your reading. It will give you great practice and help you bridge the gap between what you are learning in class and the real world. You never know, you might just end up in a great conversation!
  1. Does the author mention this a few times? If so it is probably important.
  2. Does the author pause when the topic is introduced? If so it is probably important.
  3. If a term is defined in your lecture notes the same way it is being defined by the author in the textbook; don’t copy it down again, instead think about what the definition really means.

b. Don’t think that just by reading the words on the page that you really understand them. Don’t fool yourself. We often daydream; our minds wander to what we are going to eat for dinner or thoughts about how uncomfortable the chair we are sitting in is. It takes effort to really pay attention and truly read and understand.

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  1. Ashley Hamilton says:

    I found this article very insightful and applicable to my daily life. I constantly find myself being a passive listener when it comes to some classes, lecture classes especially. Most of the time, I’m waiting for the class to be over before it even started. I’m not really paying attention to what is being taught or why. I don’t engage myself enough like the article describes one should. Instead of taking notes, I depend on myself to read and understand the book which doesn’t always work because I’m only passively reading it. This article has helped me realize why I struggle in certain classes. I plan to apply this in my future classes and see if it truly makes a difference.

  2. David Sanders says:

    I find all of these to be true. The overall concept I’m getting is: BE INVOLVED. To hope that one could subconsciously absorb information is foolish. And it shows who isn’t actually listening when you hear the same (not stupid) question over and over. As I’m reading this, I see that I’ve already been doing many of these things, and I’m glad that it wasn’t someone telling me to do them.

  3. Christi Fletcher says:

    I have found myself teaching these same concepts and tips to my students. I teach at the technical college and there are so many older adults who tend to have these same issues when learning new material. Then I have younger adults who are here but not actively engaging in learning. I use many of the methods in learning myself and have found them to be useful. One fo the required courses for all programs is an Introduction to Computers course. In this course, I try to mention all of the tips above in hopes that students will use them for the course and for their student careers. Many of the students have found them helpful. I have found that being open to all questions and not making the student feel bad for asking questions helps to build confidence so they can succeed in their other courses. Excellent post.

  4. Labreshia Lee says:

    These three ways are very helpful. I read over the material before I come to class but I don’t speak up in class unless the professor calls on me. That’s one thing I need to work on. Its also hard to listen to a professor that doesn’t make the lesson interesting. In some classes, I have to make myself listen, when really my mind is somewhere else. I wish I would’ve known the three tips my freshmen year.

  5. Jada Williams says:

    I am a strong believer that those three top aspects will indeed improve one’s grade in a difficult class. The key to knowing that you really know something or even receiving clarification is to ask questions on the topic. Asking question can enhance ones knowledge on a topic more they may think it can. There is no right or wrong question. If the answer isn’t clear you can do research, as stated in your article. Questions can play a big part in the learning process.
    Listening also plays a huge role in the learning process and can improve your grade. The more you actually listen and take in the information the better you learn and actually remember what was processed from the lecture. Therefore, because you actively listened and let the information sink in you will get to the test and fly through it, or even just classwork. Listening plays a big part in how you can make your grade look better.
    The third aspect you stated was actively reading. What better way to review in process information is there to do? When you read outside of class it’s like a review session. You can pace yourself with the reading and review and reread something you don’t understand. It’s like a little review session on your own. When you read you have to really understand, as you said don’t fool yourself. Just because you have read something doesn’t mean you truly understand. So, when you are reading be open minded and read, reread, and read until you have a clear explanation. I like the Article and I agree with what you have said.
    this article will indeed help me in my future courses.

  6. Katrina Stephens says:

    I wish I had this information at the start of this semester. I’ve been taking 3 graduate classes for the past 3 semesters. I can say I am now starting to feel my stress level increase and my motivational level decrease because of the amount of work in addition to working as an Educator, and managing a family along with an active 2 year old and a husband who is also in graduate school. However, it hasn’t been a problem before. I’ve always persevered with earning A’s and B’s. This is the first semester when I felt just a bit defeated in one particular class. When I thought I understood the assignment, it turned out the assignment wasn’t clear after all. Here is where I could have exercised “Asking good questions.” During middle school and high school I’ve always found school to be challenging. It wasn’t until I started my undergraduate courses in education that I found my classes becoming easier. I began asking good questions, becoming an active listener in class, and actively reading the materials provided for the class.

    Now that I think about it, I could have applied myself more only because I know I am capable. I could have ask that one question for clarity when I thought I had it all figured out. Maybe I would have been in a more relaxed place at this point of the semester. It could be that I’m just “burned-out” as well. Lol! I don’t want to apply attribution theory once I receive my grade at the end of the semester.

    Thank you for starting this blog!

  7. maria ortiz says:

    I found this article very interesting. I am always looking for ways to improve my grades. I am not the person to ask questions in class because I have always been shy. I never speak up in class even if i do have questions. This article was very helpful so I can work on improving my grades.

  8. Whitney Jackson says:

    This article was extremely helpful. I am always fighting myself to pay attention in class; I use to beat myself up about it. Now after reading I see it’s more of a normal thing, you just have to learn how to force your thoughts into the classroom .Before college I use to think just because I came to a class I was learning. Now, I know better, over the years I have learned you must interact, take notes, and really listen to learn. After taking your class I realized interacting in class really helps me pay attention. This article also presents me with better reading tools, it really gives to a lot to take away from. Very informative.

    • Whitney,
      It is always wonderful to hear a student of mine say that one of my classes has helped them, not only learn the material being taught, but helped them “learn to learn” better!

  9. Zachary Zilleox says:

    You know, now that I think about it, if I had just applied myself more in my classes I’d do so much better. For example, like Dr. Troyer says, if you apply the information you are learning in multiple ways like “take part in discussions with classmates or friends about what you are reading.” Also, getting to know what a word means instead of just memorizing the definition will help he/she understand the word in a deeper meaning.

    • Zachary,
      You make a great point about looking deeper into terminology and working to truly understand the term/concept/word, instead of just memorizing the definition. Elaboration and decontexualizing the learning is so important to learning.

  10. Wanda M Simmons says:

    This article captures my attention because I am always looking for ways to improve my grade. In addition, I have a son who just started college and just listening to him trying to adjust to college and find ways to improve his grades really weighs heavy on me. In high school, he was an A-B student and graduated with honors. However, he took two years off before returning to college and he is finding in very hard to do as well as he did in high school. So while reading the article I was thinking this would be a very good article to share with my son. He is working so hard in college and anything I can share with him to assist I will do. I think he would nod his head about reading actively. Recently, he told me that now he understands why I insisted that they read at least one book a month. Thanks Dr. Troyer. I will be sharing and visiting your website often.

    • Wanda,
      It is great to hear that the article was helpful! It is often very difficult for students to make the transition from high school to college and it is important to assist these students with the skillsets to be successful. It is one of my passions to find ways of improving college preparation and learning skills in general.

  11. Brittany James says:

    I found this article to be very informative. It shapes what is necessary for a student to be successful in a class. It can be difficult to actively listen through an entire class period due to some teachers’ monotony and just generally being tired. It is crucial to actively listen in class because a student may miss out on key information discussed by either the professor or another student. A key reason why many students fail to succeed although they may try is that they focus primarily on recall as exam time approaches and not much on actively learning what is being taught. Also, it is important that they pay close attention to the professor as he/she speaks: Which phrases are they putting emphasis on? Which phrases do they repeat? I’ve also found that reading before a class does actually help in retention. Too often, students, myself included, get warped in the concept of “Oh, I’ll just read the material later,” or “I’ll read it when it’s time for the exam,” and when exam time comes, we’re too lazy to actually read the material out of the book and assume that perusing over our in-class notes will suffice enough to allow us to achieve a passable grade.

    • Brittany,
      You provide an excellent snapshot of the difficulties of actually engaging in active reading (or reading at all lol) and listening (ooh or listening at all…the mind does wander when sleepy or bored)! I always tell students and teachers to emphasize the importance of disciplining yourself to engage in these practices. It really is like any other activity that requires discipline, it is hard when you start and at the beginning you get tired quickly but the more you do it the easier it is and the longer you can do it. It is like an exercise routine and requires discipline, perseverance, and good technique.

  12. Rodneshia Bridges says:

    There are many ways to improving a student’s grade within a class, although it may be quite difficult, it is very possible. We as college student’s are always waiting until the last minute to ask our professor for extra work, or even extra credit to improve our grades. My problem in classroom is staying focus, I am easily distracted from my professor. However, I have been trying to get better as a student and an individual. This article was very helpful, I learned more then I would have expected before reading it. I now know how to go about improving my grades and bettering myself as a college student. These three tips were some of the best tips i have heard and they are stated and explained easily so that I may fully understand them. Improving my grades will always be my first priority. Education is the key and I’m determined to beat the odds.

    • Rodneshia,
      Staying focused and being diligent in asking for help mastering the material are indeed keys to improving performance in any class and your right, it is definitely not easy! You have the right attitude in making your grades and education priorities; I am sure that perspective will carry you to great heights in your life!

  13. Ashley January says:

    The three tips given are essential to improving bad grades in any class or getting and maintaining a good grade in a class. Asking good questions about the material provides clarification and reinforces the information being taught. The second tip, actively listening is more than just hearing- getting involved by interjecting your thoughts and opinions will connect you to the material, and again will reinforce. The final tip, actively reading reinforces once again, and allows you to explore and connect to the concepts through self-talk and note-taking. Because you see the material in multiple places, testing well and improving your grade is an inevitable result.

    Awesome advice Dr. Troyer!

  14. Jenay Lewis says:

    These are the three ways that I have used to improve my grades this semester overall. I found myself in previous semesters having the hardest time trying to actually engage in the material. By me being that passive student that sits in the back of the class, not asking any questions I saw that it reflected my grades. So this semester I took the initative to sit in the front of all my class to first and foremost keep me awake, but to also draw my attention to what the teacher was saying. I often find it hard to read the chapter at home and take notes in class that are not straight from the powerpoint. I will definitely use some of the tips that are listed above like the most important one to me is not writing down everything you see and picking out what is important. I love when teachers give you objectives because it makes it alot easier to understand what they have already saw is important in the chapters!

  15. C'lenna says:

    This article was very insightful. I never thought about grade improvement in this aspect. I always thought if I take notes, read, and study over the material I woul get good grades, but that has not always been the case. I’m a shy person so it is hard for me to speak up and ask questions in class. This article is extremly helpful and should really be made available to all college students because it could help us out in the log run.

    • C’lenna,
      When you are shy it is difficult to initiate vocal participation in class, especially in a large group or a class full of people you do not know that well. One way around this is to focus on one-on-one dialogue with the professor or other students in the class. It is amazing what a little conversation about the material being studied can do for retention and comprehension!

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