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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.

The True Meaning of “Stupid”

A cat questioning what "stupid" really means

Most people think “stupid” means being slow to learn, making lots of mistakes, struggling to remember things, or having a hard time figuring out problems.

I disagree.

I think these are normal human difficulties that all have mechanical solutions – the tools and strategies that can be implemented to overcome them.

What’s actually “stupid” is choosing not to use these things. It’s stupid to ignore the available resources. It’s stupid to reject help when it’s offered. It’s stupid to refuse to use the techniques and tactics that have been proven to help with learning and problem-solving. It’s stupid to avoid trying to learn from your mistakes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone who does this. In fact, we all do it from time to time. Nobody gets through life without occasionally being stupid.

It’s just that the point of school isn’t to show off how smart you are (or avoid looking stupid). You’re not supposed to just breeze through it using whatever genetic gifts you happen to be endowed with.

The true purpose of school is to develop a stronger brain while learning to be resourceful and proactive in the face of diverse challenges. You gradually get smarter by engaging with those challenges. And you instantly get a great deal smarter when you use helpful resources and effective strategies.

It’s okay to be confused when you’re learning something new. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to be a beginner. These are inevitable parts of going through school and growing up. When they happen, you’ll probably feel embarrassed that you look stupid. Other people might judge you and look down on you. But that will pass.

Don’t be afraid to look stupid. But please do your best to avoid being stupid in the sense that I’ve described here. Use the tools that are available to you. Be proactive. Accept good advice when it’s offered. And seek out help when you need it. As long as you’re doing those things, you can be sure that you’re actually being quite smart.

Why Calculus is Hard

A blackboard with calculus work in progress

Calculus is widely regarded as a very hard math class, and with good reason. The concepts take you far beyond the comfortable realms of algebra and geometry that you’ve explored in previous courses. Calculus asks you to think in ways that are more abstract, requiring more imagination. You have to wrestle with new vocabulary, new symbols, and new processes. The problems are often longer and more involved, sometimes taking a full page or more of written work to complete.

Those are the obvious reasons why calculus is hard. But there’s more to it than that.

The Main Reason Calculus is Hard

In my experience as a tutor, the primary reason calculus is so difficult is that it is sitting atop an upside-down pyramid of previous math concepts. Calculus ties together everything you’ve learned (or were supposed to have learned) in algebra, geometry, and precalculus, as well as the more basic math from elementary and middle school.

Everyone accumulates knowledge gaps as they progress through math, and for many students, calculus is the course where these gaps finally come back to haunt them. At the same time that they’re trying to learn the new, weird concepts that make calculus what it is, they’re also struggling with all the old things they don’t know. This makes new concepts more confusing. It makes it hard to keep up with lectures. And it makes doing the problems very challenging.

Why do students have so many knowledge gaps?

First of all, the way our school system does math makes knowledge gaps inevitable. Let’s say the average student finishes a typical math class with an 80%. We say to them, “You got at B-. Not bad. Now move on to the next course.” So next year, they start out missing 20% of the information they’re supposed to know! We do this year after year, until their math knowledge pyramid looks like Swiss cheese.

But it’s worse than that, of course, because students routinely forget things that they used to know. The mastery path is a muddy slope, so even if you understand a concept at test time, you’ll quickly forget it without additional practice. This forgetting happens during the school year as well as over the summer.

And right now, in 2022, knowledge gaps are at an all-time high because students didn’t learn as much as they were supposed to during COVID. So if you’re going into calculus this fall, you can be sure that you have knowledge gaps that are going to make your life difficult.

Don’t be ashamed of your knowledge gaps.

You might be ashamed to admit that you don’t remember quadratics or trigonometry, but it’s okay. I’ve worked with calculus students who didn’t know how to do basic algebra. I’ve worked with calculus students who didn’t know how to add or multiply fractions. I’ve worked with calculus students who didn’t know their multiplication facts.

Having these gaps doesn’t make calculus impossible, but it does make it a great deal more difficult. So if you’re about to take calculus, or even if you’re in the middle of the course, consider hopping on Khan Academy and patching up some of the holes in your math knowledge. Yes, it’s extra work now, but it will make things easier for you in the future.

Don’t be ashamed of your knowledge gaps; deal with them. If you do, calculus won’t be quite so hard. You’ll avoid slipping into a downward spiral of math avoidance by transforming this daunting course into a manageable, even enjoyable, challenge.