TOTAL COMMITMENT POLICY
Work quality—in academia or anywhere else—significantly improves
when the individual or group responsible for it implements systematic
quality-control measures before the piece is submitted for outside review.
Although there is no universal recipe for producing the ideal in-class
performance, paper, report, or presentation, it is possible to define
a number of simple measures that will result in solid, quality work in
any domain. What follows are simple, specific steps that can be taken
to improve your in-class performance, papers, reports, classroom presentations
• Read all stated directions and follow
Your instructor expects you to follow scrupulously all guidelines and
directions that have been given in writing or orally. If s/he bothered
to spell them out, it is undoubtedly for a good reason, although the reason
may not be immediately obvious to you. In most cases, the point of guidelines
and directions is actually to help you produce better work. Not only is
there no excuse for neglecting or ignoring them, but in doing so you make
your own life harder, and—unnecessarily—increase your risk
of getting a low grade.
• Consider all rules as absolute.
Deadlines, assignments, paper formatting, presentation parameters, etc.
are not "suggested." Exceptions can be made, but they must be
justified and remain, by definition, exceptional. Note: exceptional: "out
of the ordinary course, unusual" (Oxford English Dictionary)
• Try to understand the meaning and greater purpose of coursework
Do not work mechanically; think about what you are doing and why. By default,
what you do in a college course should ultimately lead to your learning
something (a fact, a procedure, a skill, a concept, etc.), and your engagement
should have the same goal. Learning something is very different from passing
a course, earning credits and getting an "A," which are not
in and of themselves educational goals. It is true that a poorly designed
class lets students get away with merely going "through the motions"
and still getting a decent, and even good grade; on the other hand, a
smartly designed class makes it impossible for students to do well without
actually learning something. My courses fall in the second category: do
not attempt to get away with merely going through the motions, it won't
do you any good.
• Approach your work in a proactive manner.
Do not come to class expecting to "be taught" as if your role
was essentially passive. You are the one learning, and learning is an
active process. Before you start on any assignment, take a while to reflect
on its dimensions beyond what you are required to do, strictly speaking.
Attend to the spirit of the work required, rather than simply to its literal
aspects. If you are asked to "read a text," for instance, ask
yourself why this particular text was chosen, pay attention to its form
and structure in addition to what it means, look up any items you do not
fully understand. Take some notes, write a summary, a commentary. Formulate
some questions that you'd want to ask the teacher; identify some points
that could be exploited for class discussions—even if the teacher
did not explicitly require that you do so.
Mediocre students regard the learning process as a treatment that the
teacher applies to them as a physician would to a patient; they do what
is asked of them, and nothing more; they only scratch the surface of the
work required, without attempting to explore all of its possible dimensions,
and they consider academic work as a foreign object foisted upon them,
rather than as something that is—or can become—part of who
they are. Don't be one of them!
• Let yourself be pushed (and push yourself) beyond your
Your comfort zone means intellectually and procedurally familiar territory,
which does not require much mental energy, event though the content may
seem new. For instance, if for you "studying a work of fiction"
means summarizing the plot and outlining characters' motives, tackling
a new text does not necessarily take you out of your comfort zone as long
as you are only required to summarize the plot and outline characters'
motives. Before long, the amount of learning involved by studying a new
book decreases considerably. In order to develop further as a learner,
you need not only to be confronted with different kinds of materials (for
instance, texts without a plot that can be summarized, or in which the
plot has very little importance), but also with different ways to make
sense of these materials. A well-designed course will force you to venture
out of your intellectual comfort zone, but you need to do so on your own
• Expend whatever effort is needed.
Being a college student may be a challenging, sometimes difficult and
time-consuming occupation. Then again, this is the very purpose of "higher
education," and students must do whatever it takes to meet these
educational challenges. While doing so may take more time and effort,
than anticipated, only results matter: superior work is seldom achieved
without a considerable expense of time and effort, but inferior work cannot
be excused simply because much time and effort was expended in producing
it—in college, unlike in grade school, you seldom get points just
• Prioritize education.
Socializing, playing sports, and various other activities (including jobs
and internships) may well be part of the "college experience,"
but they must remain secondary pursuits at best. Participating in such
activities is never a valid reason for missing class, not turning in assignments
on time, or producing sub-standard work.
• Take responsibility.
Excuses are a dime a dozen in academe. Every semester, a teacher will
hear the classics—"The file with my assignment was corrupted"
(formerly "The dog ate my homework"), "My printer just
ran out of ink," "I really know the material, but I don't do
well on exams"—and probably a few new ones. In the vast majority
of cases, excuses appear for what they really are: a front to hide a lack
of planning, a lack of effort, a lack of sufficient commitment, in hopes
of evading consequences. In other words, attempts to avoid taking responsibility.
Becoming a full-fledged adult involves taking responsibility. Ultimately
you alone are accountable for your decisions. If you make mistakes, if
you fail to apply yourself adequately, own up to your failings and learn
a lesson rather than try to place the blame on someone or something else.
- You are responsible for gathering information about courses and programs;
about rules and regulations; about schedules and deadlines. The onus is
on you to keep track of this information, and to understand its meaning
and implications—and, if you do not understand, to inform yourself
further until you do.
- You are responsible for following guidelines and turning in work on
time without being reminded by someone else.
- You are responsible for planning your schedule—your semester,
your week, your day—so as to allocate the appropriate amount of
time to each activity. When scheduling conflicts arise, immediately consult
with the interested parties in order to solve them (a typical case being
several assignments in different classes all due on the same day or in
the same week) as early as possible.
- Never present a teacher with a fait accompli problematic situation,
such as announcing that you could not complete a paper (for whatever reason)
on the day it is due. Treat potential problems when there is still ample
time to devise appropriate solutions (which of course requires adequate
• When in doubt, ask your instructor...
A good instructor will provide the necessary amount of detail about each
class, and whatever is not specified must be either obvious (papers must
be printed out on 8x11' white paper, not written with finger paints on
the back of cut-out shipping carton pieces) or left to your appreciation.
Yet if something important does not seem perfectly clear, it is better
to ask than to do something inappropriate because of unwarranted assumptions
on your part.
• But ask wisely...
However, inquire only after having read closely the various documents
available and paid attention to what gets said in class. Asking a question
whose answer has already been given sends a strong message that you are
not paying attention, or that you do not care, or that you are not too
bright. Use common sense, too: even if the syllabus in a French class
does not state that papers must be written in French, it can be reasonably
assumed that this is the case.
• Follow a multi-step process in your work
Writing. When composing a paper, it is far from enough
to have written a draft by hand, made some corrections and typed it up.
Start by writing some notes, then an outline. Flesh out the outline into
a first draft. Read over the draft for internal coherence and balance;
make adjustments if necessary. Go back to each sentence to systematically
check for “inexcusable errors.” Consolidate sentences into
more complex units and check for repetitions and intra-sentence coherence;
read over this entire draft and make adjustments if necessary. When you
type or print out your paper, read it over at least once for content,
once for form, and once to proofread for mechanical errors.
Preparing a reading. Read the piece once to get the gist,
and note items to be looked up. Look up unknown or uncertain words or
phrases, including names and facts or notions that are not entirely clear.
Verify that the meaning you have found for each item actually makes sense
in the context where it appears. Read the whole text again to verify that
it all makes (better) sense; make a note of questions you might want to
ask your instructor in order to clarify its meaning further. Jot down
some of the most important points to be retained, perhaps in the form
of a summary including key vocabulary.
• Devise a strategy for systematically eliminating all potential
“inexcusable" errors and mistakes, i.e. those which can be
cleared up with the proper discipline, attention and tools.
Examples: inadequate formatting (margins, line spacing) - inaccurate spelling,
including accents and diacritical marks - in French, incorrect gender/number
agreements - use of non-existent words - misuse of existent words - incorrect
use of prepositions, of transitive constructions - incorrect morphology
(conjugations, plurals) - use of tautological phrases and vague words
- semantic incongruence.
• Use all the tools at your disposal, and learn about others
with which you are not familiar.
now have access to dictionaries, encyclopedias, periodicals, about 1.5
million books and dozens of databases in the library, the Web… Use
• Never leave anything doubtful unchecked.
vaguely heard about something does not mean you know it. Can you define
it? Describe it? Give an example of it? Link it to other information?
If you don’t, go find out!
• Understand how grading works
Students often hold incorrect assumptions about grades and grading:
- The customary letter scale (A-B-C-D-F with its pluses and minuses) is
not always an exact equivalent of a numerical scale from 0 to 100%. Such
a scale works well for tests including discrete items (such as multiple-choice
questionnaires), but very poorly for essays or tests on material that
is not just factual; in such cases, a grade reflects the quality of the
work (usually broken down in several components, such as structure, content
and form)—from "excellent" down to "poor"—rather
than the quantity of (in)correct items. Be that as it may, grades in the
social sciences, the humanities and the arts are not are not any more
"subjective" than in other disciplines, and therefore not negotiable
- Grading does not work like scoring in sports such as ice skating or
horse jumping, where each contender starts out with a perfect figure (5
or 10) from which deductions are taken by the judges when mistakes are
made. In academe, this model does not apply on two counts: a piece of
work free of errors and mistakes is not necessarily good enough to deserve
an "A," and points are not deducted from 100, but added up from
zero. A grade is not given by default, just by showing up, sitting for
an exam or turning in a paper: you must work your way up, even only to
- A grade does not reflect a general judgment of your character, abilities,
and motivation. Grades are given to a piece of work, such as a paper or
an exam, or a performance, such as an oral presentation. Grades are not
given to a student as a person; therefore, there are no "A students"
or "C students"—there is only excellent work that deserves
an "A," or passable but undistinguished work that deserves a
- Note that you do not "deserve" a good grade simply because...
You showed up and were attentive (that's a basic expectation)
... You "tried really hard" (only results count)
... You have always received good grades (you are being graded on what
you are able to do now)
... You need to maintain your 4.0 GPA, keep your scholarship, get into
Med school, etc. (what you need and what you deserve are not causally
... You "feel" that you should have gotten a good grade (if
there is no evidence to support it)"
stands for "acceptable," which means that the
work meets all or most of the basic guidelines for the assignment (length,
relevance, etc.) and does not contain major errors or mistakes, but shows
no particular distinction.
stands for "good," which means that the work
meets all the basic requirements and exceeds some of them, with few errors
or mistakes. A work in the "B" range may include aspects that
are outstanding, while others are merely adequate or even rather poor.
A stands for "excellent," which
means that the work exceeds all basic requirements,
with no significant errors or mistakes. To be in the "A" range,
all aspects of the work must be outstanding.
D stands for "poor,"
which means that the work fails to meet some of the basic criteria, with
significant errors and mistakes that seriously compromise its integrity.
F stands for "failing,"
which means that the work fails to meet a majority of the basic criteria,
with unredeemable errors that fundamentally compromise its integrity.