The A-Game

Welcome back to a new semester on campus!

Students, Faculty, and Staff have received several reminders and free copies of Kenneth Sufka’s book “The A Game.” If you’re a student, have looked at the book, and have some concerns and issues, IT’S OK TO HAVE THOSE CONCERNS! I read the book and attended Dr. Sufka’s original lecture on campus and had serious disagreements with the entire premise. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it! You should. Just be aware of the book’s intended audience and whether you fit in that audience.

The fault with the entire book is the focus on grades as the outcome of learning. Humanity invented grades to attempt to systemize the process of assessing assimilation of learned material. As such, they are an important part of the learning process, certainly not the entire goal as the book advocates. Grades are also susceptible to Campbell’s Law. Even the title creates in-group/out-group dynamics sending the implicit message “If you’re not getting all A’s, you’re not who we’re looking for at WSU.” This is one of the most difficult challenges I have to work with students to overcome. Bs or Cs are not the end of the world. Especially if your real work with a student club or research project are what caused you to get those Bs or Cs.

The reality is that modern companies, like Google, have publicly committed to shifting hiring strategies away from reliance on GPAs in favor of real world experiences that show a progression, culmination, and passion to contribute to an area relevant to the company.

This is a topic I emphasized in my TEDx talk titled, “The Future of Universities is…” where I spell out what I repeatedly hear students and companies want from the Academy.

Now contrast what I said in my TEDx talk with Sufka’s key steps to getting “A’s”:

  1. Go to class, always. — Classic authoritarian-legalistic mindset. Please, if you have a tour of an awesome company, or time to talk with a leading faculty member, use your judgement about what will help your career the best. Don’t hesitate to skip the class if necessary.
  2. Never sit in the cheap seats. — I always sat in the cheap seats. Usually this was because I thought not what, but how the instructor was teaching was highly flawed. And I needed to quietly discuss these things with my friends out of earshot, so I didn’t disrupt the class. Discussing things like this with friends is a key part of the learning process. So if you have problems with your instructor’s style, please, sit in the cheap seats. Figure out what’s wrong with it, how it can be improved, then help your friends and the instructor.
  3. Come to class prepared. — If you have nothing better to do that will help your career. If your experimenting to test something in class, and it causes you to slip on one of the pre-class readings, please finish your experiment. You’ll get a lot more out of the personal experience than required readings. You’re already under enough stress not to worry about the essential reading. Besides it’s the instructors job to provide a heuristic, or help you develop your own, that distills what was in the reading.
  4. When lost, ask questions. — I agree. Just ask them of your friends first. They’re likely more empathetic to how you think, your needs, and understanding. When your friends can’t answer, and nobody in the community forum can answer, then ask the instructor.
  5. Get spaced out. — Good luck. There are so many awesome things to learn in the world.
  6. Develop learning objectives. — Do your best to apply the concepts on something real of value to someone. This process writes the material into your personal experience and the right side of your brain through the hippocampus. Are you more likely to remember question 5 on the 4th quiz — or the time you built something that solved a problem for your grandmother? Don’t make your objectives a grade or tied to something not grounded in the physical world.
  7. Learn materials at all levels. — Look, the reality is you’re going to be too busy worrying about grades to do this. Slow down, work to apply the material to help people. One tip that got me through graduate school, and nobody taught me, was that the library likely has an entire shelf of books on the topic you’re studying. Find an author that said it the way you need to hear it, then apply it on something real. You’ve got your entire life to try to learn everything.
  8. Use learning checks. — See references to “real” above.
  9. Be exam savvy. — If your instructor still wastes the classes collective time and efforts on exams. There really is no substitute for helping someone do something real. There are too many pressing problems with humanity to contribute to the entropy of the universe by taking written exams. Push your instructors to let you SHOW/DEMONSTRATE/APPLY your knowledge by helping someone real in our community and region. When the time comes that you have to take an exam, make your own, have your friends make their own, I learn a lot more when I make the exams because it forces ME to think about what I know, and don’t know.

And remember, the strength of WSU students is not epitomized by high GPA’s, like other Universities in our region. Our students are valued for actually doing freakishly hard things that companies wish they could do, like building Genii, winning international competitions, or starting new businesses. The more we focus on grades, the more time and energy that is collectively taken away from our greatest strength. Remember, As are important, just don’t let them get in the way.