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Did I make the right points?

How many points do I need for full marks?

Is this the right answer?

These are questions that I have heard countless times from students and I completely understand why. When you’re being graded by someone, it’s natural that you would want to know if your answers are “right”.

But, have you ever thought that the quest for the right answer would hinder your ability to succeed in university? Well, it does.

In order for you to understand why thinking of your work on a right versus wrong spectrum might actually be hurting you, you have to understand what is expected of you in university and how your professors will be grading you (specifically in the social sciences and humanities). Beyond this, it will also help if you know how grading differs between high school and university.

Description vs. Analysis

One of the key differences between grading in high school and university is the huge distinction between descriptive and analytical thinking.

On a high school exam, for example, you may be asked to identify and describe a term for 5 marks. In most cases, if you’re able to include 5 facts from your class lesson or textbook, you’ll get 100{605a43512f953fcdbff8e9ee02d3feecc6b92996cdbf590be48a35f2609dac0a}. All this requires you to do is study and memorize curriculum material. The better that you are able to describe what you read, the better your grade will be.

Grading in university is different and this is a point that many students realize, but never understand. The same kind of answer in the above example would, at best, get you a C or C+ on a university exam. This is where students encounter a major problem. Put simply, all of your training has led you to produce work that is not going to get you a strong grade in university. So what is your professor looking for then?

The answer is analysis. For you to get into the B or A range in university, you have to display analytical thinking. Essentially, professors look for you to assess the logic and credibility of arguments, challenge assumptions, and formulate rational answers to questions. This goes well beyond just describing something.

For example, in returning to the scenario above, you would need to accompany your 5 descriptive points on an undergraduate-level exam with more reflection. Every question is different, but you may want to comment on the limits of our understanding of the concept, the broader implications, or even interrogate the traditional understanding of that topic (for more on how to do this you’ll have to sign up for one of my courses).

To get to a better grade, you have to show a rich understanding of class material. This starts with knowing the difference between descriptive and analytical thinking.

Defensible vs. Indefensible

In university, there is no right and wrong. Rather, there is defensible and indefensible.

When grading your work, your professors will not be looking for a predetermined answer. They will be looking for critical thinking and your ability to speak about themes and concepts in an informed way.

Rather than assessing how “right” or “wrong” you are, professors assess your work for how credible and logical it is. This is an important distinction. Instead of producing a specific answer, your concentration should be focused on forming a position that is supported by evidence and reason.

Following from this, maintaining a spectrum of right and wrong may be an obstacle to your success in university. Instead, I encourage you to focus on producing answers that are defensible. If you want to maintain that A average from high school, this should definitely be one of your goals.