Lessons for Bad Students

You shouldn’t listen to me. I was a bad student myself. But I’ve managed to get to this point in life, and I have some thoughts. If you are struggling in class. If you cannot get the grades you need. Or if you’re having a hard time focusing, try this: 

Teach yourself: Not everyone is blessed with great teachers and mentors—and even when you have them, they don’t stick around forever—so you need to support yourself, build yourself up, and be curious on your own. Read lots of books, experiment with many hobbies, and explore new skills. Lessons will come your way when the time is right, and as the ancient Chinese saying goes: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready… The teacher will Disappear.” 

Focus on projects, not grades: Start making and doing a lot. Welcome failure and rejections. Be innovative and creative. Be vulnerable and daring. There aren’t grades to measure those aspects in school; the curriculum rarely teaches students to create prolifically because teachers aren’t able to grade everything. Never mind the grades! Your audience is bigger than your instructor, so do more. 

Document your journey: Keep track of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and what you learned along the way. Documenting is a great way to reflect on your approach, but it’s also an opportunity to make something tangible to share with others. Sharing knowledge is teaching, and teaching is one of the best ways to learn. 

Allow knowledge to fill slowly: School rushes you to memorize information in a short amount of time, but your brain is a porous container. As you fill it with new knowledge, you’ll find that concepts, formulas, and techniques will leak out. When you can’t retain it all, don’t fret. Knowledge does not happen with a flick of a switch. If it’s relevant, it’ll come up again, and the more you’re exposed to it, the more you’ll recognize it, and the better you’ll be at memorizing it next time. No need to cram; there is no test when it comes to life experience. You know what you know. When the time comes, you’ll be surprised by what’s left in your brain. 

Not everyone is destined to be a great student. Some find school boring, some can’t afford it, and some struggle with authority. I understand. I love learning, but I hate being taught. If you’re like me, you probably had someone tell you you can’t do something unless someone certified graciously teaches you. I’m not certified, but whatever it is that you want to learn, I allow you. Go ahead. Be rebellious. 

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Stick with red


Why ‘rainbow marking’ students’ assignments is a waste of time

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016

When it comes to painting, I enjoy seeing a piece of work that skillfully incorporates the full range of the colour spectrum. However, when it comes to homework assignments, receiving a marked page with two, three, four different colours in not only disarming, but also a bit confusing.

In an effort to soften the “aggressive” tone of criticism, teachers in Europe and North America have been testing out a new form of marking, where different colour pens are used to classify different types of feedback. For example, a green marking can represent grammar error, purple can represent inaccuracy, and blue can represent misspelling. This technique is coined “rainbow marking.”

While it may seem like an invigorating way to help students recognize their mistakes, we also must remember that a significant part of a teacher’s job is marking. Having them go the extra mile to pick up different pens to mark different errors seems like an unproductive use of their cognitive energy and time.

For the students, it leaves a whole new level of confusion. If they don’t understand how they made their mistake to begin with, changing the colour of the marking is not going to educate them any better. They might be able to see that the green mark means they should have removed the comma and added a period, but they wouldn’t know why. They know it is wrong, but they don’t know the principles of their mistakes. The root of the problem is never resolved.

As for the argument that the colour red is “too aggressive” for students, I say: “toughen up.” You cannot coddle students forever with pretty colours. This type of teaching reinforces the idea that some errors are less important than other errors. When I was in grade school, a common question that would pop up whenever an assignment was due was “does spelling count?” For some reason, we felt that the accuracy of our spelling should not compromise the content of our homework. Of course spelling counts. How will anyone understand what you wrote if you don’t spell properly? Yes, some errors are more glaring than others, but if we want our students to strive for perfection, we cannot say that that mistake is better than another. We need to be aggressive if we want results.

In Western culture, we put too much onus on the little nuisances of the teachers. We call out the teachers for the students’ mistakes. It’s clear that “rainbow marking” is another system of testing the instructors, not the students. It allows a third party to look at the marked paper and say, “Well, the teacher is clearly incompetent. He used a blue pen here when clearly he should have used an orange pen.”

Why not just mark the paper with a pencil? Why not just allow the student to erase it afterward so they can feel better? If the teachers are hired to do the job, then trust their judgment. Let them stick with the tried-and-true system: red pens for marking.

In one ear and out the other


A significant percentage of adults have forgotten elementary school lessons, but does it matter?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 17, 2016

A recent survey conducted by YouGov revealed something worrisome: grown-ups have forgotten basic lessons in math, English, and science. One in five adults in the study admitted to having trouble with calculating fractions and percentages. About a quarter of adults cannot recall how to use a semi-colon in a sentence or the names of all the planets within the solar system.

Now, it might seem embarrassing for an adult to forget about lessons they spent so many hours studying in their youth. But that type of knowledge is now trivial. We live in a wonderful age where we are as smart as our phones. We calculate our bills with them, we end arguments with them, and we can easily relearn all that was taught to us in elementary school via watching YouTube on them.

The ability to remember everything taught to us is not necessary a product of smarts, but rather the product of skilled memory. We remember what’s important for us. While we are able to train our memories like we are able to train our bodies, many of us have more important things to deal with.

Remember when you were young and you memorized all 150 (at the time) Pokémon? Try recalling them now. We remember what is important to us. If we enjoy sports, we’ll remember names of athletes. If we like video games, we’ll train our fingers to remember combinations. If we like history, we’ll remember specific moments and characters from the past. We choose what to remember.

Adults who have forgotten about math, English, and science lessons aren’t stupid. They’ve been putting their cognitive energy into other things in their lives that require it. They don’t have time to sit down and review their elementary school lessons once a week. Nobody is going to randomly do long division if they don’t have to.

But should they? Sure they should. Everybody should be confident with math, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be proficient in everything.

Elementary education is the basic foundation for lessons in the rest of our lives, but now that we are older we can happily decide what we need to know. And luckily, we are living in an age where if we do want to learn something or review something, we can do it with a few clicks. Intelligence is not the ability to memorize everything. Intelligence is the ability to find the answer when it is needed.

Adults today are different from the adults of the past. We can store our knowledge in the cloud and pull it down when it is needed. This gives us more room in our brain to think about other things.

How to live with Big Brother


Understanding why privacy matters

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formally published in The Other Press. February 17, 2016

While it isn’t necessarily the government that is tracking all your activity, the combination of all the data accumulated in day-to-day life is enough for them to know you better than your parents do. We can almost be certain that, although there is nobody watching us on a screen, our every action is recorded, filed away, and capable of being pulled out and evaluated by those with the credentials to do so. Most often those people aren’t people at all, they are just marketing algorithms designed to match your queries and daily behaviours with advertisements.

Now, Google isn’t out to embarrass you by exposing your search queries. TransLink will not send a message to your girlfriend if you decide to make a mysterious trip out to Surrey. Bell is not going to let your boss know that you’ve been trash talking him with your friends. These things don’t benefit the company, so don’t be paranoid.

It’s hard to trust the motives of big corporations, but I always bring it back to one question: Does such and such action cause them to lose or gain money? If your behaviour continues to benefit the business you get the service from, you can keep going merrily by—as long as you are not committing any heinous crimes.

There is no way around it; we need to trust companies to use our information ethically. However, we need to also be conscious of what information we are haphazardly giving away. See, privacy matters. Without privacy, you’ll lose control of your own life. The companies will own it.

Any sort of meaningful self-development does not happen in a group, or with Sauron’s eye watching you. It happens independently, not on Facebook and not while Googling. I’m not talking about education or improving your business skills or finding online romance, I’m talking about the growth that occurs when you are allowed room to breathe. This is the type of growth that has no deadlines and no guidance. This in essence is the life you’ll live.

We have become so obsessed with sharing our experiences on social media, telling everything we do to Big Brother, that we are forgetting the real point of our pursuits: to create memories that aren’t saved on any hard drive, except the one between our ears. We are scared of people listening in on us, but we have stopped listening to ourselves.

The season is changing. It’ll be a warm summer, I predict. This is an opportunity to get away from the information highway and do something nobody on the Internet will know. Big companies are constantly collecting data, and so should you. The good thing is, you get to decide what information you want to store: what’s spat out to you by those online or what you discover yourself. It’s up to you.

When networking isn’t working


Why your networking opportunities are a waste of time

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in the Other Press. November 11, 2015

Remember the last school day in high school when you, your classmates, and everybody else gathered in the foyer to sign yearbooks? Remember how you tried to accumulate as many signatures and H.A.G.S. (have a great summer) as possible? Remember how empty that feeling was after? That is how I often feel when I go to networking events.

Ask any working professional and they will tell you that networking, at some point, contributed to their success. But where and how they network? That they seldom share. I’m far from a successful professional, but I think I know when my time is being wasted. My time is being wasted when I’m not making any genuine connections. Like those speed-dating events that people do to find romance, I feel that same way with attending networking events in search for employment. If there is no connection in five minutes, I slowly start sneaking away.

If you approach a networking event for your sole benefit, i.e. employment opportunities, you’ll ultimately fail. Rarely are employers hiring at these events, and if they are, you entering their lives spontaneously and then disappearing a few minutes later will not go far in influencing them to hire you. Instead, approach a networking event with an additional purpose. Ask yourself: What would I like to learn at this event? Product development? Marketing strategies? Sales tactics? Whatever. Rather than showing off your smarts and woefully impressing people who don’t care, gain knowledge by communicating with those who have more experience than you.

One thing I found really useful at a networking event was to have a project going in. If I had to report on the event, what where the topic be? What can I wrap my story around? Let’s say I was at a tech-startup event (I’ve been to a lot of those), I could write about the hardest aspect of building or working at a startup company. Then I probe, I interview, I meet people who work at those companies, and I asked them the question: “What’s the hardest thing about working at a startup company?” I’m gaining knowledge. I’m getting results. At the end of it all, I have a collection of interviews and maybe even an article with knowledgeable insights. What I decide to do with that post is up to me. I can share it via my own network and up my Klout score, I can keep it for myself, or heck, I can send it to those who I have interviewed and see if they would be interested in the content. I have done more than network; I have made a connection. I’ve gone the extra distance and shown my spunk.

Networking events are a waste of time if you are collecting business cards. Business cards are worth less than Pokémon cards if you don’t reengage with the person. They’ll forget about you as quickly as you’ll forget about them.

The Report Card: Education

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Originally published in The Other Press. Mar. 11, 2014

Education is akin to medicine, nutrition, and fitness; it’s a vital part of being a person. But knowledge is not about being smarter than the person beside us, it’s about mutual support. In post-secondary, we are forced to think and learn with a competitive mindset—we’re all battling for the best life possible, after all. But for other students, it’s more than simply getting good grades, graduating with honours, and applying for work: it’s about surviving and creating normality. Blessed or cursed, the willingness to learn is what defines us in the end.

Pass: Supporting inmates

We all make mistakes—some more haunting than others—but we must be afforded the opportunity to redeem ourselves since capital punishment is not an option. If you think it’s hard to bounce back after your GPA drops, try bouncing back after receiving a criminal record. Certain doors are closed after that, so it’s even more important to support our inmates as they attempt to make the transition from criminal to lawful civilian.

The current correctional and educational services offered by the Canadian government are available in institutions of all levels (minimum to maximum security). Everything from teaching basic grade school-level knowledge that helps inmates deal with daily problems to vocational education that teaches them certain trade skills.

These initiatives help inmates put their best foot forward the day they leave their correctional facility.

We, as poor college students, may often feel the injustice of having to take student loans and work extra shifts to pay for our own education—leaving us exhausted and in debt; we also begrudge the fact that our tax dollars are paying for the education of criminals. That is a disgusting thought to many people. But that notion in itself is disgusting. Poverty and crime go hand in hand, and the solution for both is education. The same way we offer shelter and food for the poor, we must also offer education and support for the troubled.

Fail: Pressuring prodigies

Our strengths give us pride. Those are the attributes we showcase to employers, friends, and especially our parents. But focussing only on our strengths at a young age, in the way prodigies are often treated, causes the loss of a lot of substances and the sensation of growing up in a modern world.

Today, it’s less about what you know and more about who you know. I believe the prodigy model is fading. Young geniuses are often introverted and reserved, and have shown signs of autism and other social deficiencies in addition to their brilliance. Organizations today are built not with a nucleus, an overruling boss who makes all the decisions, but rather a functioning support staff that contributes to finding solution for every problem that arises. Prodigies not only need to understand complex mathematical concepts or the majesty of music, they must also learn how to interact with others. Therefore, we should avoid pressuring prodigies.

We must nurture talent, but talent does not have to be a single-lane career path. A talent can also be a hobby or an enjoyable pastime. We often preach, “Do what you are good at,” but I believe we should do more than we are good at, we must attempt what we are shitty at as well. We must teach modesty, keep prodigies grounded, and avoid positioning them on a pedestal. Teaching talented individuals to overcome adversity in the form of challenges is support in a different way, and is equally valid.

We don’t need no education


Homework and exams can only do so much

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. Oct. 2013

Mark Twain once said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

As I round into the latter-half of my two-year program, this quote resonates more than ever. Sometimes I get so focussed on grades and assignments that I forget the whole reason I signed up for college in the first place. After all, I’m attending post-secondary for the same reason everybody else is: to achieve my full potential in a career of my choice. But when an opportunity knocks, what choice do I really have?

The education system can only teach me so much before I become disinterested and start to reject the content. Nay, it’s just my inability to retain it. I sit through lectures, I jot down notes, and go through the classroom motions until I’m released once again with a list of readings, several assignments, a scheduled exam, and project deadlines. Unsure of what I’m getting out of it, I feel overwhelmed and anxious.

People tell me to pay my dues, but trudging along learning something that will be forgotten or never applied feels like a complete waste. Public schools and general studies are just that—general. Catering to the masses and focussing on a few, schooling may often feel like the instructor is teaching to another student while you sit idly by waiting for some relevant content to spark your interest. Sure, with a little luck, we’ll end up with that piece of paper honouring our completion—but is it worth the price?

I say build your own curriculum and don’t just follow schooling. Classrooms and lecture halls can only do so much. In preparing for the real world, it’s important, nay, critical to experience the real world. Don’t just get a part-time job at a local restaurant if you’re studying law. Strive for something in your field and don’t fall for the trap of convenient work. I understand that those opportunities are hard to come by and jobs are incredibly competitive, but take the chance. You’ll learn more interning at a firm than you would serving drinks, or even cramming for an exam.

Volunteering may seem like offering free labour, but if you think that then what do you think homework is? Being an unpaid helper shows the public that you care about your craft, that you’re willing to take time out of your busy schedule to learn, and that money isn’t the priority. Volunteering is a terrific way to network and meet future employers, regardless of the volunteering circumstances. By surrounding yourself with people of the same professional interests, you can gain knowledge and inspirational fuel.

Travelling is the best and only way to see the world. You’ll learn more about yourself sitting at a bus terminal halfway around the world than you would sitting in a two-hour lecture about global economics. Didn’t get the course you wanted? Instead of spending your money on meeting your post-secondary credit quota, book a trip. Tuition comes in many forms and that means education does as well.

Just because you are in school, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn outside of it. Workplace preparation is more than exams and homework. It never hurts to be an all-around interesting person.