DE WOLF: The art of cutting corners

The summer before I started college, I was filled with anticipation. Ahead of me were four years when I could pursue my academic interests in an environment dedicated to learning. I would share and cultivate new ideas and build ambitious plans for the future with the smart, engaging professors and students I would meet. Almost everyone I talked to assured me that my years in college were going to be the best years of my life, revolving on an axis of learning, thinking and collaboration.

I am now three-eighths through my college career. Looking back on these three semesters, I find that college is unquestionably a fantastical world — but not in the way I expected.

In college, learning — in its purest form — is not prioritized. To the contrary, it seems that the general objective for many students is to learn the least and still do well on evaluations. This strategy of doing the bare minimum, moreover, is often as successful as the full-effort approach. It is probable that the student who puts in minimal effort will achieve the same exam scores as the student who puts in maximum endeavor.

Students are often rewarded for cutting corners. I have observed that it is rare for students to attend all their lectures in any given week. For introductory classes, many students go to only a handful of lectures the entire semester. They use the textbook to complete their homework assignments. At midterm and finals periods, they cram enough to pass the exams. For most students, this strategy brings free time for other interests and social activities; often, it can culminate in a very good grade Although the student may have acquired knowledge during the semester, the class was not about learning.

In college, many professors and students set high exam scores and excellent grades as the ultimate goal and appear to be ambivalent towards class participation. Especially in science classes, grades are often entirely based on exam scores. Professors rarely recognize passion and perseverance in college. Achieving high exams scores, however, is not equivalent to learning.

If one sporadically or rarely attends class, does that count as going to college? High schools require their students to attend a minimum number of school days in order to receive a diploma. So why should not the same rules apply for college?

One could learn from a textbook without paying tens of thousands of dollars a year. Generally, a college degree is required for a decent white-collar job. But is college preparing us to become diligent employees? Does college teach the right message concerning work ethic? Perhaps the training we receive in college does not prepare us for our post-college vocation. We go to college expecting the University to prepare us for post-graduate life. Is it the school’s responsibility, therefore, to demand that we be more than good test-takers?

In college, we learn the art of cutting corners to achieve arbitrary grades. But this rarely seems to work in life beyond college. As my dad often reminds me, in the words of Woody Allen, “90 percent of life is just showing up.” Both my parents attribute their successful careers to hard work, persistence and diligence. Dedication, diligence, passion and drive are essential to success and fulfillment in life.

In two and a half years, when I graduate and enter the real world, what will get me where I want to go? Will it be cutting corners or perseverance? Perhaps these four years in college are the only years of my life when assiduousness, diligence and dedication are not the keys to success.

Maybe college, neglecting to instruct us in the practical and essential strategies for life, does not train us for the real world. Perhaps colleges and universities need to rethink the values they instill in their students — and reevaluate how they might teach the importance of tenacity, perseverance and dedication.

Wendy De Wolf is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at wendy.dewolf@yale.edu.

Comments

  • Goldsmith11

    “If one sporadically or rarely attends class, does that count as going to college?”

    If one sporadically, or rarely attends Toads, does that count as going to college?

    http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/apply/transfer/index.html

    • Frashizzle

      Like.

    • Goldie08

      I’ve found that cutting corners is particularly easy when you have a younger sibling in some of your classes to lean on for various assignments such as problem sets and questions for section when you haven’t done the reading or attended lecture. ever.

  • jorge_julio

    absolutely agree. People here are in the habit of taking on huge numbers of activities at the expense of their academic life – indeed it’s expected of you. The truth is that, for most of us, activities determine our post-yale prospects more than anything else. I’m not sure this is in itself a bad thing, but you’d at least like people to come to terms with the fact that Yale is decidedly not a liberal arts experience.

  • Frashizzle

    The point of college is learning how to learn. That’s why English majors go-on to ibanking. It doesn’t matter what you learned, as long as you learn how to manage time and find and memorize information quickly. That’s what corner-cutters are learning, and that’s what every college student should be learning.

  • Dedwards

    I absolutely love this article and have spent a lot of time thinking on this subject. To me, higher education is all about doing the least possible and not actually fulfilling the mission statement of the university, which is to instruct and teach young minds. Think about it. Who does all the teaching these days? To be honest, the TAs, who are on the bottom rungs of the higher ed latter. Associate professors do much less teaching. And the tenured professors even less than that. What does the university president do? Well, he certainly doesn’t teach — he pretty much just raises money and tries to get appointed to various positions in government (very Larry Summers-like).

    The way I see it, if the incentive system for the professors is to teach less, then my incentive will be to ignore whatever they have to say and learn things that actually interest me.

    • Dedwards

      “In college, we learn the art of cutting corners to achieve arbitrary grades. But this rarely seems to work in life beyond college”

      I disagree with the second sentence. We got the housing market debacle from a bunch of Ivy Leaguers trying to cut corners, outsmart everybody, and get a big bank bonus. Cutting corners worked for those guys in later life, but it screwed you and me!

  • eli1

    The beauty of Yale is that if you want to learn, do the reading, go to class you can. If you don’t want to, thats your choice too. Personal freedom to shape one’s college experience is a beautiful thing.

  • hzaleskimd

    As a scholarship student from a public school background, I always felt obligated to attend every lecture, seminar, lab possible. I felt these years were the best chance I had in life to actually receive an education and be exposed to as many fields of thought as possible.

  • ycollege14

    This is certainly not the experience I’ve had with Yale classes. Until this semester, I put in minimal effort, and in exchange received mediocre and unsatisfactory grades. I realized this semester that I really needed to put in much greater effort if I wanted to see anything close to an A, and also learn from my classes. I have also not just been taking “difficult” classes up until now. My mediocre grades included some for large intro lectures. I am also not alone in this problem. Maybe it was easy for you to get good grades with little effort, but I certainly would not say that is generally true for Yale professors, students and classes.

  • OOB

    As someone who routinely gets worse grades than people who cut corners,

    Y I SO DUMB

  • joematcha

    I have two comments to make. One is that college should be about whatever an individual can get out of a given institution and those individuals should be able to prioritize that for themselves; it’s part of learning to be an adult. I came to Yale specifically because of the fact that it is academically rigorous, but also has a social life defined by extracurriculars. I love using what I learn in the classroom in myriad ways outside of it; that’s how I learn and retain the best.

    My other comment is that the situation is not as clear cut as you make it out to be here. Many professors create courses whose work cannot actually be completed in its entirety (I’m thinking of reading lists in particular). I imagine some do this on purpose so students can figure out for themselves how to balance the work best in ways that allow them to learn the most. “Cutting corners”, is good in this instance because it’s just understanding the economics of time management. Others do it because they expect their students to actually complete all that work at the expense of other classes that have less work or are less important. In these cases, I and many other students begrudgingly or happily put less effort into classes that matter less, especially if those classes end up not being as engaging as we thought they might be in the beginning.

    I also found myself skipping lectures occasionally because of unique opportunities that conflicted, such as Master’s Teas with guests who were important to me, or to complete emergency tasks for organizations I had been elected to lead.

    I’m not trying to say you don’t understand these issues, but your column is too quick to label “cutting corners” as something only anti-intellectuals who are content on coasting do. If you article focused more on the issue of how to rectify the perverse incentives that lead students to cutting corners, then it would have been much more worthwhile.