How to Get Better Grades in Your Psychology Degree Program

Good GradeBelieve it or not, professors are people too. In fact, they once sat where you – the college student – are sitting right now. No one is born a professor, and even the most highly revered scholar was once a freshman sweating out his first mid-term. Truth of the matter is they may even be sweating it out right now. Being a scholar is one thing. Being a teacher is another. A genius can change the world with a complex discovery but become seriously befuddled ordering a salad. The skillsets required for research and writing are much different from those that comprise a great teacher. Many a student has made this unfortunate discovery while sitting through what seems like an eternity of monotone droning; it goes on and on, ad infinitum about something hideously obscure and off-topic.

But guess what? This is the person who will ultimately decide your grade. There may be teaching assistants who do the reading and grading; but the final word on a semester or quarter grade rests solely with the professor of the class. With this in mind, the smartest thing you can do is make this person your own personal “project” so to speak. You must contort your attitude to one of positive attentiveness of all he/she says or does, and you must go to great lengths to have a participatory “supportive” mind-set. Why? Because in order to ace any class, you must, to some degree, learn to think like the person teaching the class. If you are in a university, chances are your professor has authored your textbook. If not, they have chosen the course books for a reason. Either way, the books were written or chosen for very important reasons, and should never be discounted or overlooked as a source of potential academic power.

At some point in your college career, a teaching assistant (TA) will give you a grade that you did not deserve. What will you do? The most important thing you will do is not ignore the situation. You must take action. This is your life; these are the makings of your future. Professor Leo Stevens has been teaching psychology for 20 years. When asked what made him notice students in class he answered in a rather strange way;

“What makes me notice students is when they receive a poor grade and say nothing; absolutely nothing. Once in a while I will read over what the TA has done (grading wise) and when I find an error I will change it. If it makes a big difference in the overall score, I will ask the particular student to remain after class or attend office hours (a phone call is made at the end of term.) I tell them what has happened; I tell them it baffles me that students do not care enough about their grades to question the scores, to fight for their work. I shouldn't be the one chasing down their grades and proving them unfair. Students who suffer from low self-esteem still need to inquire about their scores. If nothing else, it gives them the chance to learn what they can do differently in the future.”

- Professor Leo Stevens

That being said, here are a few pointers on how to be noticed in a positive way, and to boost your grades in psychology:

There Are No "Blah Blah Blah" Moments in a Lecture

There are no throw-away words in a lecture. When you are taking lecture notes, take notice when the professor gives examples that are not in the book. These examples may be of a personal nature and they may be off the top of his head. If he takes great interest in explaining in detail, jot down the specifics. When you make up your study sheet, write in that particular example in accordance with the point illustrated. Why? If you need to back up an assertion you make on the test or in an essay, this is the power tool. Point out that it was mentioned in lecture and give enough information that the reader knows you heard the lecture. Doing this proves 6 vital things to the grader: 1) You attended class. 2) You listened. 3) You heard. 4) You understood. 5) You applied the knowledge to a test question. 6) You cared. See how to survive Psychology 101.

Coursework Is More than the Syllabus

Get your hands on something the professor has written or spoken on which is in-line with the classwork. Don’t just grab something for the sake of schmoozing; genuinely take interest in this scholar’s journey and remember they have dedicated their professional life to passing on this information. If your professor wrote your text, look to the book’s reference section to find an outside source he seemed to fancy. Do enough research to intelligently understand what this resource meant to the process of writing the text, then jot down a couple of sentences which apply to the material being taught in class. Citing these resources in coursework or on an exam shows the grader these important things: 1) You read the material. 2) You understood what you read. 3) You participated in what you read. 4) You cared about what you read. 5) You delved further into the reading. 6) You are a seeker.

Dr. Emma Mansour, professor and founder of “Life Matters: Counseling and Psychological Services” specializes in individual therapy and psychological testing. She is a graduate of the University of Utah’s Counseling Psychology program and maintains a private practice, in partnership with The Center for Human Potential, in Salt Lake City, Utah. These were her thoughts about what makes a student special:

“I am always impressed when a student asks a question that indicates they have read the material and are thinking critically about the information. When I have been asked to write letters of recommendation for students, I want to be able to say that they have demonstrated the ability to think critically about the issues. Critical thinking is a necessary skill for graduate training in psychology.”

- Dr. Emma Mansour

So whether or not you are considering graduate school, or possibly asking for a letter of recommendation, probing deeper into the subjects at hand via thorough catechizing will put you at the head of the class (at least in the professor’s point of view.)

Office HourAttend at Least One Office Hour

Here we have come full circle because the reason to attend at least one office hour is because professors are people too. Everyone likes to feel heard and appreciated. By taking the time to attend a professor’s office hours, you are showing them you care about the class they are teaching. You are in essence saying to them that they are indeed important enough for you to take an hour of your free time and wait in line to speak with them. Or maybe you’ll find there is no line in which to wait. Then you will definitely stand apart from the rest of the students who chose not to make time for a little further delving into this expert’s mind.

One former Psychology Professor at Florida A&M University, Misha N. Granado, had this to say to students seeking to stand out and be recognized;

“Depending on your institution, the classroom may be quite large and it is easy to become lost in a sea of your peers. However, there are a few ways to stand out in the class. At the beginning of the semester (or before the semester begins) take a few moments to research your professor. Is he/she published? What is their area of expertise? Then schedule a meeting with him/her, introduce yourself and inquire about their work, how they selected psychology as a career. Ask for their advice as it pertains to preparing to become competitive and successful in the field. After the meeting ask for their business card and follow up with a hand-written thank you note. Once the semester begins, arrive early, sit in the front of the class, be prepared and participate in classroom discussions. These are excellent ways to ensure you stand out in a positive way.”

- Misha N. Granado

By being present mindfully (you go beyond the lectures); academically (you go beyond the books) and intuitively (you take time to engage yourself with your scholar); you will show the grader these important things. 1) You are more than a student enrolled in a class; you are a learner engaged with a journey. 2) You are not just memorizing information for a test; you are mastering concepts for life. 3) You are going somewhere, you have a plan and you are focused. In short, you have earned your “A.”

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