As the new academic year starts and with it the New Year’s resolutions too I thought it would be good to share the advice that I have been giving to new students every year for the past fourteen years. Mignon Nolte Smit told me these were the three pieces of advice that her dad gave her when she first went to university. Over the years I have been reflecting on them, and while I initially thought it quite humorous, I have come to realise that they are, in fact, the three golden rules of academic success – in the following order:
- Make the right friends.
- Get to know your lecturers.
- Do a bit of studying.
The joke lay in the fact that he put studying last; but the fact is that University is a process of growth intended in creating your future, and not acquiring a bit of knowledge and skill. Nevertheless your aim upon entering university should be to get a distinction, not to pass: The higher your grade, the better your return on investment. So many students write appeals to me asking me to let them have that one mark that will change their result from 48 to 49 so that the computer will automatically adjust it to 50%! They are missing the point. The aim is not 50%; the aim is 100%. So let’s take the three golden rules one by one and see how they can lead to that distinction.
1. Make the right friends
How many times have you heard people say of a university dropout – “S/he got involved with the wrong friends”? Your friends can make you or break you. I remember, at school, being told not to go to the ice rink – because that’s where they sell drugs. Believe me, the ice rink is perfectly safe. Most addicts get their first fix from a friend. Don’t make those friends.
Your friends are the centre of your network. They are your business partners and your connections for the rest of your life. They are also the ones who will call you in the morning if you overslept after pulling an all-nighter before a final exam. They are the ones who will lend you their notes for a class you missed, and you will both end up in the dean’s office for getting the same questions incorrect in your test.
Make sure you curate your friends properly. You need those who will push you, challenge you, criticize you and support you. You need to have some friends who are much cleverer than you, so that they can help you with things you don’t understand. You need some who struggle so that you can help them, and get to know the work much better as you teach it to others.
Above all, though, remember the old truism that if you are the brightest person in your group, you are in the wrong group.
2. Get to know your lecturers
Your lecturers are the stand-ins for your future clients and bosses. They are there to challenge you, to support you and to help you grow. They are not there to remind you of deadlines and dry your tears. One of the complaints that cross my desk most about lecturers, is that they are inconsistent. What Lecturer A will give a distinction for, Lecturer B will fail. Now what? The point is – you have to get to know very quickly what they want. The obvious place to look, of course, is in the assessment rubric. If there is no rubric, ask for one – it is your right. In academic life there should be no surprises – neither good ones, nor bad ones. If you did better than expected, or worse than expected, then the outcomes were not properly explained. If the rubric doesn’t tell you, then ask. First ask your friends, then ask your class rep, and then ask your lecturer.
Do not be afraid of approaching a lecturer directly. Remember – your fees pay their salary. And when I say ask your lecturer, I really mean ask anything. Ask for an explanation of where you went wrong. Ask if you may fix and re-submit. Ask for an extension if you have to. Why you can even ask for a bonus mark. The worst they can do is say no. The best that can happen is that they get to know you. Don’t worry if they get to know you for the wrong reasons entirely. Six months down the line they will remember you and not the incident, and when an opportunity comes up and they are asked to nominate someone, they will nominate someone they know. And ten years down the line when you are rich and famous, they will tell their grandchildren “I taught them in first-year you know.”
3 Do a bit of studying
One of the most common mistakes that students make is not setting priorities. You need not learn everything. You need to learn the underlying principles. You must learn to learn. Any assessment is designed in such a way that any student should be able to get 50%. Then it gets progressively more difficult to get higher grades. So, the way to approach a written examination is to provide a tentative answer to every question. Then go back and do the ones that you know you can do well.
Do not leave a single question unanswered. If you don’t know the answer at all, then paraphrase the question and write that down as the first sentence of your answer. Then guess a second sentence. Then go on to the next question. That way if the lecturer needs to find that one mark to get you to 49% so that the computer can give you 50%, they can put a one next to your nonsensical answer. Nobody will know, but if you write nothing, we can give you no mark. Here is a simple case study. You get 45%. Unbeknownst to you, the whole class does poorly and we decide to increase the grades by five percent. Now you get 47,25% and you qualify for a re-assessment. Or better still, we decide to increase the grades by 10% - now you get 49,5% and the computer gives you 50%! If you got 0, then 0 x 10% remains 0.
The same goes for assignments. Never miss a deadline, ever in your life. Ever. Just don’t. A non-submission is a zero. Submit your rough work. Submit an outline of what you would have done if you had the time. Submit a picture of your granny if you must, but submit something. It is much easier to ask for an opportunity to improve on work that you submitted than to ask for a late submission. Better still: Be the first to submit. In my experience the students who submit first are also the ones who do best. Think of it, the best runner of a race is the one who finishes first.Besides, if you keep on submitting first, your lecturers will get to know you.
Finally, don’t be scared. The biggest reason students have for dropping out of university is that they are scared of dropping out of university. You open the book and you see how much work it is. Now you are so scared that you close the book again and go and do something to take your mind off it. Tomorrow when you open it again, the work has not grown less, but the time has. And your panic increases. So what do you do?
My friend Dr Kobus van Wyk once asked us “How do you eat an elephant” – and we gave the standard answer – “One bite at a time”. To which he responded: “If you do that it will rot long before you have finished”. Then he shows a picture of a few lions and a few vultures around an elephant’s carcass and he gives his answer: “You invite your friends!”
Which is the reason for the first rule.
Here is a comment from Mignon Nolte Smith, posted on my Facebook Page soon after I posted this. Amazing to learn more of the man who originated my talk!
My dad is 81 this year... he still gives me amazing advice. Hendrik Nolte has a M.Sc in Biology, was a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. He was the builder of the Merensky Library on Campus. He raised 5 children, still married to his highschool sweetheart. In his life he was a farmer, still is, a headmaster of an agricultural school in Perderkop. He wrote debating speeches for many national winners - including myself that won Tuks redenaars in 1990. He wrote two books, one on stories of the people he knows and one on research of the Nolte Family. His other books are academic, textbooks... i will have to look it up! He is a cabinet maker, an now spends his time making oxwagons on scale - to the Johanna van der Merwe - that was standing at Tuks at the Merensky for many years.
He was the Tuks lecturer who threw a student out through the class window for blowing smoke into a microscope. He was in the Rapport Newspaper and the Landbou weekblad for succeeding with a business venture in times when everyone was failing. He had the right friends... but he never had many friends.
If you are in the Mpumalanga area visit his amazing historic Anglo Boer War museum which he has collected over 20 years.
I have never seen my father depressed, down or even moedeloos... he is the only person on earth I know who has mastered the magic authors like Victor Frankl writes about.
Always a brighter day ahead, always something more to love for, something to do, someone to help.
Thank you prof Johannes for this amazing memory I really appreciate it!