Faking Your Way Through a Course

A fork in the road in a forest

Broadly speaking, when you’re taking a course, there are two paths:

  • Actually doing the learning (pursuing comprehension, mastery, and long-term memory) … or
  • Just faking your way through it to get a decent grade.

Of course, as someone who’s passionate about learning, I prefer to see students embrace the first option. Even if it’s a course you’re not interested in and even if it’s content you don’t plan to use in the future, it’s still good brain exercise to fully engage with the challenge of learning the material.

Remember, the main point of school isn’t to learn things, but to learn how to learn and to develop a strong brain.

But sometimes, faking your way through it makes perfect sense. Really. It’s okay. Almost every student does this with some of their classes. (And yes, I can hear the parents reading this gasping.)

When Faking it Makes Sense

It takes a lot of time and energy to truly, deeply learn the content. So, if you’re forced to take a subject you don’t care about, and you’re just taking the course to check a box on the way to graduation, it might be wise to just phone it in. There are only so many hours in the day, and you might be too busy working hard to master the courses that matter to you.

A busy student working hard

Or if you’re deciding between spending time on volunteer work you’re passionate about or spending time learning content that’s irrelevant to your future, you’d be justified in choosing to focus on your volunteering.

But what does it mean to “fake” your way through a course?

It means playing the game of school:

  • Paying attention in class but not going above and beyond at home.
  • Doing a decent job on your assignments and turning them in on time.
  • Cramming for tests in order to get a decent grade.

It means your focus is on grade management, not learning.

Of course, to get a decent grade, you need to do some of the learning, but you don’t have to do the hard work of pursuing mastery. If you only form a short-term memory of the material, who cares? You’re just trying to get through the class and move on with your life. You’re not striving for excellence; you’re shooting for “good enough.”

When Faking it Goes Wrong

There are a few situations where faking your way through a course creates big problems for students.

Subjects like math and Spanish are upside-down pyramids, meaning the content is cumulative. Each new topic builds on previous topics; each year builds on previous years.

Unless you’re taking your final year of math or Spanish, faking your way through the course sets you up for a good deal of pain down the road. Very often, students can fake their way through for a while, but then they hit a wall. Too much of the new content is based on old content that they either don’t remember or never learned in the first place. This can lead to a downward spiral of avoidance that makes it harder and harder to get caught up.

Faking it is also a problem when students don’t realize they’re doing it. It’s common for students to mistakenly believe they’re actually learning the material when they’re actually just developing familiarity with it. True knowledge requires far more effort than familiarity. This frequently happens when students arrive at the “I get it” milestone on the mastery path, but never work past it.

They pay attention in class and do well on their homework, but they don’t engage in the spaced repetition and interleaving that lead to expertise and long-term memory. Thus, when they take a unit test or a final exam, they’re shocked to learn that they don’t really know the material. This often happens the first time a student takes a really challenging course, such as an AP or IB class.

Make a Choice

If you’re faking it through a course, it’s important to know that you’re doing so and accept the consequences that come with it. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re really learning the material. And don’t be surprised when you’ve completely forgotten the content a month or a year later.

The big idea here is not that the learning path is better than the faking it path. The big idea here is to be aware of the two paths and make a conscious choice. If it makes sense to just fake it, that’s fine. But if the situation calls for mastery, do the work to truly, deeply learn the content.

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