Top Performer Tip: Get a Better Grade on Your Next Assignment

Happy student -- Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360

I have a PhD. I have taught at university for 5 years in Australia, and at a professional postgraduate program in Canada. I have an honours BA from one of Canada’s top universities and graduated with distinction. I’ve received nearly $100,000 in scholarship funding and a bunch of university awards. I have spoken around the world, including at Stanford, Microsoft, SXSW, and TEDxPerth.

But guess what!

I was kind of a crap high school student. 

I did well in a few subjects, but generally my grades were just okay.

I felt that no matter how hard I worked, I still got the same disappointing results.

And sometimes, I got terrible results. In my last year, I bombed my final physics exam.

I would’ve failed the whole class if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was on the school’s Quizbowl team, which also just happened to be run by my physics teacher, affectionately known as Mr. Boo.


broken plate -- Photo Credit Tony Alter Breaking plates

One afternoon before a tournament, a friend and I were chatting with Mr. Boo and we came up with wacky idea for our major assignment: I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved throwing plates from the school roof, doing math on the pieces and then emailing some researchers in Denmark with the results.

Since most high school students don’t discuss their experimental results with international physics researchers, Mr. Boo was impressed enough that he gave us a grade so spectacular (98%!) it brought up my average enough to pass the class.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was beginning of my transformation from a crap student to an awesome one.

Decoding hidden expectations

Most people think success is simply about hard work. This seems like a pretty reasonable belief, right? But, if you look at top performers, both in school and in the professional world, you quickly realise they know something you don’t.

Succeeding in school — succeeding in anything really — is not just about hard work. And sometimes the hard work is the less important bit.

One of the keys to success is understanding and mastering hidden expectations and skills that, funnily enough, are never formally taught in school.

In my case, the hidden skill I was learning was how to communicate and build a good relationship with my teacher. It was a skill which served me well over and over again, and was key to helping me transform into an awesome student.

Tear down

So, let’s put everything together. How did I manage to get nearly 100% in my physics final assignment? It wasn’t just hard work, it was because I had accidentally started behaving like a top performing student, which changed two things for me.

The first was that I was now getting better information and guidance. By working closely with Mr. Boo, my friend and I had a clear sense of what he was looking for in the assignment. He gave us feedback as we went along, so that when we submitted the final assignment, many of the things that would have brought down our grade were already addressed.

Sharing my progress with Mr. Boo meant he saw how hard I worked on the assignment itself, which he would not have known if I had simply handed it in at the end. This probably helped our grade as well.

The second bit was a bit more subtle, but perhaps more important.

By building a good relationship with Mr. Boo I helped him to see me as a whole person, not just a grade or a number.

He could see that even though I may have failed an exam, I was not necessarily a lazy or unfocused student, which is what most other teachers had concluded about me. Through my conversations with him and my participation on the quiz team, Mr. Boo saw that I had potential and gave me a chance to improve my grade — a chance I had never been given before. Without it, I probably would have failed his class.

Talk to your teachers!

Throughout the high school and university years, I saw a direct correlation between my grades in a class and the quality of my relationship with the teacher.

By communicating and building a good relationship with my teachers, I was able to:

  • Get more extensions while staying on the teacher’s good side (unfortunately, asking for an extension, even if it’s totally justified, often sends the message that you are a disorganised, poor student)
  • Do better on assignments because I had a clearer idea of what my teacher wanted (there are many things teachers look for that they often don’t explicitly include in assignment descriptions)
  • Get better support when I was unwell
  • Getting access to more opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to improve my grades and advance my career

Your action steps

Now it’s over to you with an action you can take right now, regardless of where you are in your studies. This approach works best for classes with a lot of writing, but your mileage may vary.

Pick a class. Perhaps it’s one you’d like to do better in.  Before you do your next assignment, make an appointment to see the teacher (either in person or over Skype if you are studying online), explaining that you want to make sure you turn in a really strong next assignment. Make sure you have read all the assignment requirements and go in with some smart and informed questions about what they are looking for. Better still, go in with some initial ideas about your assignment and use the time to brainstorm with your teacher and get some initial feedback.

If you get the assignment back and are not happy with your grade, you have another opportunity. Make another appointment to get clarification on your grade and the teacher’s feedback. Again, make sure you have done the work and read and understood the feedback and have some well thought out questions about how you could do better next time.

Not only will you get really useful feedback and a clearer sense of what the teacher is looking for, you will help the teacher to see how engaged and hard working you are. On your next assignment you’ll not only have a much stronger assignment, but you’ll also have their good opinion of you now working in your favour.


I would love to hear from you!

Have you noticed better results in classes where you have a better relationship with the teacher?
What were your results with this approach?
Do you have other tactics that worked well for you?

Share your experiences in comments, or contact me directly.

6 Responses to Top Performer Tip: Get a Better Grade on Your Next Assignment

  1. Kero June 9, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

    This is excellent advice, Kate. Encouraging your readers to think more about the entirety of the study relationship with their teacher will enable much better results for effort expended.

    • Kate Raynes-Goldie June 11, 2015 at 6:47 am #

      Thanks Kero (and hello again!)– that’s a great way of putting it. I’m trying to think of a way to describe all of the sort of “soft” but really important skills that make up success… something using the term “entirety” maybe!

  2. 24idk June 11, 2015 at 3:46 am #

    Or you could simply just study, work hard, learn the material well, and let the quality of your work speak for itself…
    I haven’t ever really noticed a difference in my marks depending on how well I know a teacher/professor. I produce excellent quality work, perform well on exams, and get high marks without constantly checking in with my educators. While I do think that it is important to have good relationships with teachers/professors, that alone won’t save you from getting bad grades. I have found my teachers to be very fair in their grading in that they don’t let personal bias affect your marks. Some even request that you hand in essays with your student number, rather than your name, so that they have no idea whose essay they are marking. Thus, the grades they give are based on quality, not on how much they like you or how hard they think you are working.
    In addition, my final exams are all worth 50% of my course grades, are comprised of all multiple choice questions, are not scaled, and not marked by my teachers themselves, so if I didn’t do well on those exams, no teacher would be able to save me from failure.

    • Kate Raynes-Goldie June 11, 2015 at 6:45 am #

      Hi there,

      Thanks for your feedback. This is not a replacement for hard work — most teachers will bend over backwards to help students who show interest and are willing to put in the time and effort. Mr Boo is a perfect example of this. If a teacher sees you are being lazy, it won’t really matter if you try to have a good relationship with him or her.

      I’m curious — have you always been a good student? I highly suspect students who have always been strong have picked up this approach early on (either through parents or siblings), so it might appear that they have no bearing on grades because there’s no benchmark to compare it to — plus it just seems a “natural” thing to do. As Marshall McLuhen put it “whoever discovered water certainly wasn’t a fish”

      Fair point about exams that are multiple choice — as noted, this approach works best for classes with a large writing focus.

  3. 24idk June 12, 2015 at 6:01 am #

    I would definitely agree with that. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with some excellent teachers and mentors throughout my education who have been strong supporters of my ambitions and goals. They understand how hard I work, and I feel that they may take an interest in me more than they do with most other students, as I am more engaged in the learning process. However, I don’t feel that this directly impacts my grades. If anything, it indirectly influences my grades, as I am more motivated to do my work to high standards of quality and impress those who have invested time and effort into me. But I wouldn’t say that it has in any way affected how my teachers have evaluated my tests and assignments.

    This school year, I have been a lot more independent with my learning, and rarely go and see my teachers during office hours, despite the fact that I went often last year. The result? My marks and overall average have been almost completely identical to my previous grades. In some classes, I finished with the EXACT same percentage as in the prerequisite course.

    I feel that I have been consistently successful throughout my academic career, due to hard work and knowing how to study. I would say that knowing exactly how to study/having effective test writing skills are the most important factors in academic success. Much to my dismay, working harder/being more connected with teachers doesn’t necessarily guarantee better marks. I’ve had to learn through trial and error how to become a more effective test writer. I have also become better at predicting what material will be covered in tests, enabling me to manage my time more effectively.

  4. Rohit N. June 21, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    This is great advice regardless of discipline. Whether it’s the humanities or science and engineering.

    For example, I got less than enviable marks in the first 3 computer science courses’ assignments.

    Then i started to read and underline things that were expected from my code
    I literally printed the assignment and started to underline and highlight things like “must faiil gracefully without throwing an exception on non-numeric values”

    After that, I would go to the Prof. and make sure I understood the expectation.
    This way i went prepared to talk to them and they got to know me. The fact that there are limited office hours each week and that you had to utilize them, enforced the discipline to read through the assignments.


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