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Q & A: How Much Should I Care About a Minor Assignment I’m Doing Poorly On?

From the reader mailbag:

A history class I have this semester separates its grading as 35% to each the midterm and final exam and 10% each to the weekly 2-3 page position papers, weekly multiple choice quizzes, and attendance. I continually get less than perfect grades on the position papers. Should I work harder on these to gain the perfect score in the class, or are these worth so little that I should not worry about the individual grades on these?

Cal responds:

There are two types of academic problems: major and minor. Major problems represent poor performance on important assignments. If you don’t fix the situation your grade will likely drop a full letter or more. Minor problems are less important. Typically, a failure to address a minor problem might add a “-” or take away a “+”.

Major problems have to be addressed. This might require an overhaul of your study habits and a significant investment of additional time.

Minor problems are less urgent. Your situation with the position papers is a minor problem. So don’t lose any sleep over these.

What should you do? My general rule for minor problems: don’t increase the amount of time you are working on the assignments causing the trouble. (Life is short, don’t take away free time when you can avoid it). Instead, look for simple ways to improve the outcome of the time you already spend on these assignments.

For the specific case of your position papers, I recommend talking with your professor. Don’t ask directly how to improve your grade. This smacks of grade-grubbing. Instead, ask what the better position papers in class do right. He may even give you a few examples to review. This one meeting will only eat up 20 minutes. It will, however, probably give you enough tweaks and tips to your writing process to produce a grade bump on future papers.

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