Take your nose out of the grade book and behold wonder!

In the video we saw during class, Dan Pink talks about higher rewards leading to worse performance on cognitive tasks. However, he doesn’t describe the experiment well enough to understand why/how higher rewards impact cognitive skills. His other video does a better job with the candle experiment. In this one, he describes that the higher reward narrows subject focus so much that they can’t think outside the box to solve the problem. This matches with the quote used by Alfie Kohn :

A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  “Ten years,” the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  “Then 20 years,” the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student in the Ashram.  “In that case, 30 years,” the master replied.  His explanation:  “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I didn’t register the impact of Pink’s work until I read Kohn’s. Then I got hit by memories of finals time with friends calculating what grade they needed to get grade X in each class. While I’d like to say I was above this practice, that I didn’t feel those needs because I would rather be studying instead, such words would be a lie. In the classes that I enjoyed, I don’t think I ever calculated a theoretical grade, but in the boring or disinteresting classes there was a lot of “I could probably accept a lower grade in exchange for my sanity…”. What’s worse about this is how focused people are on only grades.

Students want a degree to get a job, and think that grades will affect their job chances. The truth is that your professional network and your ability to interact with people will pull far, far more weight in the job market. However, students feel more compelled to study than to attend networking socials and conferences. I have a terribly hard time getting students to attend events for my club (when they’ve already told me they are interested) because they’re afraid to take time out away from the lab or studying.  I offered a free week in Detroit to eat food and network at the largest and most important conference in my field, no presentations required, and no one would take me up on the offer. That is insane to me. I basically had to force close friends to go because I had already booked housing with university funding. I’ll do the same thing next year too. Students are so focused on finishing degrees or getting good grades that they miss the opportunities that make life good. It’s a sickness at this point, and I blame this need to keep an eye on your grade/end goal. Finishing is important, but if you enjoy the journey you’re far more likely to make it out alive.

With this in mind, what are some opportunities you’ve missed because you were afraid of setting yourself back or getting a lower grade? What experiences have you enjoyed at some cost?


Edit: With the vast interest in this conference I’m “dragging” people to, I thought I’d give a little context. The conference is the annual conference for the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), know as ANTEC. Last year it was in Orlando, this year it’s in Detroit, and next year it is apparently in  San Antonio. My advisor is the club advisor so I kind of got guilted in signing up for a leadership position when my lab mates wanted to step down. Since starting I’ve started to love the opportunity and I want to give it a bigger presence around campus. VT has an amazing polymer/plastics program and that makes it a great place to use a club/organization like SPE to dispel the many misconceptions about plastics (yes they stick around forever, but they are so efficient to make it makes paper bags look like hummers – you win some, you lose some) and teach amazing things (like plastic eating fungi)! Anyhoo, to make an impact I applied to a bunch of funding opportunities through VT and SPE and got some. I’m also tabling for my department at their career fair/expo thing, so I got some support from the Macromolecules Innovation Institute to talk up VT to anyone considering grad school in the polymer field. So if you’ve got any vague connection to plastics you want to take advantage of, hit me up for next year’s conference (or come to the SPE meeting on March 1st).

Also, for anyone interested in a cheap local conference, in 2020, VT is hosting the National Graduate Research Polymers Conference (NGRPC2020) through ACS. It’s a great time to learn about how plastics affect you. And currently, we plan to offer VT students a discount…but that is still being worked on.

</shameless plug>

15 Replies to “Take your nose out of the grade book and behold wonder!”

  1. Wow! I love a great conference.! I’m actually using some vacation time, paying my own way, and rooming with a fellow Ph.D. student to save on costs to attend a conference in April. I agree with you that it is more about the journey. We can learn so much more from one another than we sometimes learn from the books we read.

    1. I’m impressed that you are so into the conference you are willing to pay your own way! Don’t forget about the GSA travel fund if you haven’t already used it this year!

        1. So, on the main page, I didn’t see anything about presenting. However, now that the docs are up for viewing, those DO say you need to present. GSA should probably put that on the front page of the Travel Fund page.

  2. Hey Bradley,

    I can completely relate to your post. I have had friends like you describe–the ones who spend energy figuring out how much effort or performance is required to “make it through.” It was bewildering to me then and it still is when I am confronted with students who are more interested in petty scores than with whether they’re actually learning.

    I wish I had known you when the offer to go to Detroit was live; I’d of jumped on that in a heartbeat! Keep encouraging your peers and students to consider a life outside of the grades & assessment trap. Life’s too short, right? We can’t spend all our energy worried about whether we’re getting top marks and completely neglect the cultivation of ourselves outside of the classroom. Industry is interested in hiring “good students” but they’re likely more interested in finding good personality matches and people who have lives outside of the Academy, with diverse and interesting skill sets, etc.

    1. Yeah, I personally feel like I’m wasting my time if I’m not learning. Undergrads pay way too much to learn nothing in my opinion, so making it through and learning the bare minimum never made sense to me.

      I’m curious if students are also just completely unaware of the benefits of conferences. There’s so much free food and drinks at good conferences that it’s a like a vacation with a bunch of like-minded people that might hire you one day. It’s super!

  3. I have also experienced the ways networking has led the charge to securing a job, in fact I can’t recall anyone, other than graduate school, even taking my undergraduate grades into consideration. When we network and communicate our values to others to see if there is alignment it speaks volumes above whether or not we aced our final semester of college. I appreciated Kohn’s shifting of our mindsets from quantitive evaluation to those that are more qualitative in nature, ways we can focus on “nourishing their desire to learn.”

    1. Agreed, in terms of learning and assessment of it, qualitative is so much more useful. But like any qualitative data, it takes more time and effort to process than numerical data. In truth, the teacher shortage is probably a huge contributor to the push for quantitative assessment. If we had enough teachers to give time off during the day to write up qualitative assessments and such we wouldn’t need scantrons to save time for already overworked teachers.

      1. Absolutely, and hopefully we would also be able to get rid of 200+ student courses which make giving qualitative evaluation next to impossible.

  4. Hi Bradley,

    Great post. Your post and story on missed opportunities because of grades and lab work reminded me of a couple of years I had in my undergraduate career where I was so focused on finishing up and getting a job to make money to support my parents that I didn’t think about doing things outside of class that mattered. It wasn’t until my third year where I started to realize the importance of developing the soft skills and getting out more that I really started to flourish and gain an interest in my current field. My mentor at the time told me that networking was just as important as my grades and that if I wanted to do graduate school, that was my way in. For me, I ended up working for someone I met through a conference I attended. At the time, I was definitely questioning myself and reasoning that I had other things to do….In a way, I think it comes down to just making time and not saying no, which can be easier said than done.

  5. Brad, I definitely experienced the “missing out on things because I wanted to finish work to get the grade”, especially my senior year in college when I decided I wanted to apply to grad school. While that kept me from some things, it certainly didn’t keep me from others – like volunteering with the Engineering Career Fair at my university, going to talks in my department, or networking with others.

    My grandma got a degree from a business school and worked for Wachovia Bank for many years, eventually working her way up into important positions in her region. She would always tell me, “remember, Meredith, it’s not about what you know, it’s about *who* you know.” This is something that I often remember and share with my friends who are looking for jobs now. It’s all about the networking and less about the grades.

    I also remember a professor from my undergraduate institution joking that the students who get As will go to grad school and be really smart while the students who get Bs and Cs will end up being their bosses because they know how to network and have fun with people. While he was just joking around, the wisdom of those older than me has really stuck – and changed my perspective on what I spend my time on during grad school!

  6. Omg! I really enjoyed your blog post. You can invite me to go to the conference in the next year 🙂
    You have an excellent point! I do not have much networking skills, but i have been trying to attend as many events as possible so that i can meet people outside my field. However, I do not see many graduate students from my major attending these events. In fact, many of them think it is a waste of time! This is insane indeed!
    Before, I would miss some opportunities so that I could stay at home studying for exams. I can say that I am “physco” about my grades. However, since I have started grad school I have realized that networking and interacting with people will get me much further than only focusing on my grades. I have a lot to work on still, but i believe i am in the right way to change my mindset about the weight of grades in my life.

  7. I have never really thought about the theory that the master had, but I completely agree with it. If you’re so focused on getting good grade you are using brain power that could be learning additional material. We should have a love for learning and not focus on the grades, although today’s society makes that difficult for us. Companies that focus on GPA’s make it hard for students to enjoy learning and not focus on what their grades are. We all want a great job once we complete our education, so we do what we think is necessary to obtain a job. I like to keep a balance. I have a love for travelling so I attend several conferences a year to network and experience new opportunities. I, like you agree that we should give up some study time to enjoy things, create new experiences, network and potentially create new opportunities for future endeavors. I am also interested in additional information for the conference you attend annually.

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