Bryan Caplan  

Tell Me How It Feels to Be a Bad Student

Keynesianism: It's not just re... Great Moments in Crowd Sourcin...
Being a bad student must be a miserable experience.  Teachers, parents, and other kids point out your failings day after day.  Even if they sugarcoat their negative feedback ("Billy needs to improve in... everything"), that's gotta hurt.

Why then do we hear so little about the plight of the bad student?  The obvious answer: Bad students rarely grow up to be writers or public speakers.  (Enlightening counter-example: Comedians).  Indeed, bad students rarely grow up to read blogs or comment on them.

"Rarely," however, does not mean "never."  My request: If you were ever a bad student, please tell us how it felt.  How would you compare it to other sorrows you've experienced?  The more details, the better.  It is time for your voice to be heard.

COMMENTS (50 to date)
Quinn writes:

I was a lazy student. I was just never motivated, so when homework was assigned or any other out of class work, I would either not do it or put it off. In the class I was fine (well except chemistry, but I failed that because I was mixing chemicals and it blew up in my face). College I was not as bad, but still not very motivated. Luckily I found economics though, and have been reading blogs and even after graduating read textbooks whenever I can. I think for a lot of us it is simply a matter of motivation. Reading Chaucer and writing a report isn't always the most thrilling activity

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I was a bad student in my 3rd grade private school. I was given a lot of homework and worst of all I had to write in my journal every day. I did not have the attention to do all this work (that was not as exciting as reading about DNA and rockets and black holes). My grades were really bad.

My parents couldn't afford private school any more, so I started going to public school, which had almost zero workload, and I was rapidly crowned "the smartest kid in school." It was freaky!

Mori Kopel writes:

I had both the good and bad student experience going on simultaneously when I was in Jr. High. I was a top student in public school, but a bottom student at our synagogue's Hebrew school my mom made me attend.

Regular school always seemed very relevant to me since I had ambitions of becoming a scientist. As a voracious sci-fi reader I'd been continually exposed to pro-education propaganda and bought that line in full. But I loved it for its own sake.

On the other hand, I have been an atheist from age six, when I asked Mom why God was more real than Casper the Ghost, and didn't get a good answer. So Hebrew school felt like worse than a waste of time, but a place to go to be taught that fantasy worlds are real. Looking back I wish I'd taken the opportunity to learn Hebrew well. But at the time that would have felt like surrendering to my oppressors.

So while in public school I sat in the front and barraged my teachers with questions, in Hebrew school I sat in the back and doodled. I turned what I thought was a waste into self-fulfilled prophesy.

Later in life I briefly became a high school teacher, and recognized both of my earlier selves in my classrooms: the engaged kids who wanted to be there, and the disengaged ones who felt that any sign of interest would have been a betrayal of their own integrity.

So two things strike me about my bad-student persona: I was a bad student because 1) I was unconvinced of any value in being a good student, and 2) consequently I rebelled against the imprisonment and slavery of forced attendance.

As a teacher I became convinced that both the bad and good students would have benefited from letting the unwilling students go away. As I haven't become a parent, I've never had to face up to that conviction with my own children, and can't be sure how I'd react.

Dave writes:

I probably don't qualify because I was not a habitually bad student (I was lazy sure, but not bad), but I did go from dean's list to flunking dropout sophomore year of college...because of a whom I've been married for 14 years now, so I can't say the experience felt miserable then or now.

I may be wrong, but I've always had the impression that the majority of "bad students" (as opposed to kids with behavioral problems and suchlike, which seems different from what you are meaning by the term) were only bad in the sense that they preferred expending their efforts on other things--video games, the opposite sex, sports, etc. At least for this kind of bad student, they ended up doing what they preferred so it couldn't have been that miserable, no?

KnowPD writes:

Being a bad student would only be miserable if you are a bad student among good students.

Daublin writes:

My impression is the same as Dave's. When people are bad at something, they either didn't try, or they quickly say they didn't try. It's not so bad.

The times it hurts are when your friends all want to do something, and you can't seem to figure out it. The the knife lands true, because unlike with teachers, you can't so easily blow off your friends and say you don't care about things they care about.

Usually this latter case is not an academic subject. It's knowing popular dances, or dressing right, or knowing the right parts of pop culture trivia.

Ben writes:

I was an a student until college and then became a b- student, which is pretty lousy these days given grade inflation. I don't know if that's what you're looking for. My parents were confused/somewhat concerned. My profs were largely uncaring and frequently talked down to me. My peers didn't really know/care because i wasn't failing.

The thing is, i didn't even think of myself as a bad student at the time. I thought i was learning a lot (I was) and I didn't care that my profs disagreed because i thought they were idiots (they weren't) and i figured my grades wouldn't ultimately matter that much (partially true). There was this huge gap between my internal sense of my education/ability and the external feedback i received, which was very tough to process and probably led to moodiness.

There are plenty of business leaders who were terrible/mediocre students. Isn't the saying that colleges hire former a students to teach former b students ' kids using money donated by c students?

The toughest thing was interviewing for jobs right out of college because everyone asked for a transcript and wanted me to justify my low grades. I don't know if there's any right answer to that question but nothing I tried ever worked.

Brad writes:

I too was a bad student. Due to laziness and indifference. When I gave a damn I did great in school.

In HS I would just not turn in the work or turn it in in a sloppy manner, I would not study much for test but I generally did pretty well on test anyway because I am pretty smart. If a subject did not interest me I would put forth ZERO effort. If it did interest me my teachers loved me because I could be very engaged. I failed a couple quarters in HS and middle school but would always get scared straight in time to pull it out.

In college I once failed every class I took besides PE in a semester. I just partied and did not show up for class.

Once I became and econ major things turned around as I was interested in it and it took very little work. I convinced them to let me into grad school on a trial basis and then I really kicked butt because the material interested me and I had a chip on my shoulder to show that I belonged. Also I met my wife who was a positive source of motivation. Now I have two masters degrees. Go figure.

How did it make me feel? Well I felt like I had let my parents down and it made me depressed when I finally got my grades. I usually resolve to be better the next year/semester and usually did, but once I started doing well I would start slacking off again. I never really felt like I was dumb because I usually knew the material or had put forth no effort. But I was generally down on myself about how lazy I could be.

mb writes:

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vj writes:

This won't earn pity points but I was also the classic "smart kid, bad student". Most of school just felt like an endless, pointless series of hoop jumping completely detached from anything that mattered in the real world.

I was lucky that I had the IQ that I could get past tests by paying moderate attention in class and figure things out as I went along. And I could occasionally whip out a homework assignment in homeroom or on the bus ride to school.

But anything more than that was just abject hell / drudgery / emotional turmoil. Even now - decades since - my skin crawls thinking about the complete uselessness of everything I was being forced to do.

So, I'm very sympathetic to "bad students" of all kinds and cheer everytime I see a drop out IPO or Google rigorously prove how even within their storied workforce, Grades != Performance.

Bacon Wrapped writes:

I received the equivalent of two years worth of credit during my first three years of college. I missed homework, skipped classes and on a couple of occasions missed exams or showed up to class not knowing an exam was happening that day.

I felt bad about the grades I was getting, but I didn't let it bother me too much for too long. At the time I was just more interested in the social activities associated with college than actually getting any sort of degree. In fact, looking back on it, my performance did not bother me until my friends graduated and I felt like they were all moving on to a different part of their lives.

I dropped out during the winter quarter of my fourth year. That spring my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she died about two years later. Dealing with her illness was much tougher than anything I ever endured before or since really. Other types of stress don't really compare, and in a sense the whole situation made other things seem easier.

Eventually I joined the Navy, served for four years, went back to school, graduated and went on to get my Masters.

jb writes:

I was bad in math, relative to my peers, in high school and college. I found proofs frustrating, the seemingly arbitrary rules about how to derive calculus incredibly difficult to memorize, etc. The only reason I passed college calculus at all was because I had learned a different way of handling derivatives in physics.

It was relatively humiliating, but I mostly just accepted it 'John is bad at high level math' and focused on what I was good at - software.

Daniel writes:

Similar to Quinn's experience, but I resented having out-of-school time being dominated by work so I just did academic triage for most of my years: whatever I knew had to be done would get done the next morning, and everything else in classes where it either didn't get checked or was a small percentage of your grade, I just didn't do. Also, I despised having to do arts and crafts projects under the guise of academic work (and so did my parents who had to help me when I was younger). I was hoping it would stop in high school, but it continued through college, and I would never hide my disdain as to their assignment. It reminded me of being given "busy work" as a kid because I would usually finish classwork quickly. Whenever something gave me the feeling of adult "busy work" in class, I just wouldn't do it.

My feelings were odd because in conversation and writing my teachers knew I was far from unintelligent, but I can see why I annoyed them since I was indifferent as well. Their annoyance stuck out more in middle school because my parents had to sign my report card, and their comments would always come from a similar template, "Does not complete work up to academic capability."

Mark Brophy writes:

I graduated from engineering school 27 years ago with a 2.3 GPA. I suppose that makes me a bad student because my grades were low but 90% of the freshman who entered didn't graduate. Many chose business school because it's easier. My grades were low partly because I rejected the legitimacy of grades and partly because I worked outside of school. I think students should grade teachers but teachers should not grade students. If employers or others want to know whether someone is worth recruiting then they should choose an organization other than a college to evaluate candidates or they should perform the task internally.

Ariel writes:

I was a straight A student most of my life, until I got to law school. There, because of a combination of laziness and my complete lack of interest in the subject, I was in the bottom 25% of my graduating class.

What I can say is that the way I reacted to constant negative feedback about my performance was to decrease how much I cared about both my performance and feedback about my performance. In fact, since investing my time in class was having such bad returns, I invested even less time in class. I focused so much on my hobbies and side interests in those years - outside of the classroom, they were actually some of the most stimulating years of my life. Of course when I did this my grades got even worse, but at that point I didn't care.

Ariel writes:

Let me say a bit more: in addition to attending fewer classes and reading fewer textbooks, I also started to prefer the company of people who were not in my program, as these people weren't talking about the classes I wasn't paying attention to, wouldn't care that I was a bad student in my program, etc.

So I grew less and less engaged in my own program, to the extent that by the time I graduated I did not have a single friend left among my actual classmates: but I had many friends among the undergrads or in other grad programs.

I guess what I'm hinting at here is that there's a spiral effect, where being a bad student leads you to be an even worse student by destroying your engagement in your studies.

ARajan writes:

Meta-point: it seems like all the commenters here are saying something along the lines of "I was smart, but not motivated".

Firstly, it would be nice to hear from someone who is genuinely not "smart" (by IQ or whatever other metric), but we are unlikely to find a genuine dullard here, much less one who actually admits to it. This is a general problem with self-reporting. Without such a perspective, though, it is difficult to gauge the experiences of the many genuinely bad students who are bad because they lack intelligence, not conscientiousness.

Secondly, I wonder if the "smart but not motivated" trope is nothing but fundamental attribution error. Maybe every idiot thinks himself smart but not motivated; as an outside observer, how can we tell the difference?

Randy writes:

Add another to the "smart but not living up to potential" category. In my head I would calculate the opportunity cost of my time for each grade level (before I knew what opportunity cost was). Example: for a D: 0 hours of work per week. For a C: 1 hrs. For a B: 2. For an A: 4. The sweet spot was inevitably about a C. I never cared what others thought. Perhaps that isn't correct. . . I would actively fight others' expectations. I would seek out conflict, so I would often shrug off criticism. I didn't care what others thought because I thought I was smarter than all of my instructors, up until college.

An exception to this was the Post-Calculus level Probability Theory class to cap out my Mathematics minor. I put in incredible amounts of work and rework; research and practice. My grades in other classes dropped as I turned my attention to this actual challenge. . . and a D was my reward.

At the time, it was devastating. The professor was great. My classmates worked hard and got A's and B's. I had no excuse, save my own academic inadequacies. This was the event in my life that proved that I could give my all and still fail.

Looking back, it was a turning point. I didn't 'buckle down' or begin chasing the A's, but rather I realized that those students that passed were amazingly intelligent and driven; more than I could be. It made me respect my colleagues and that continues to this day.

-Analytical Chemist, MBA

Tom West writes:

Well, the spiral effect is defensive. After all, caring about something and then failing is usually much, much worse (at least from my observation) than managing not to care after the fact.

People may admire the captain going down with his ship, but that doesn't alter the fact that he's dead.

Glen Smith writes:

I'd say it depends on what you mean by 'bad' student. One that does not produce or one that doesn't work. In my HS and college days, I was rarely one that didn't work (except in ones where it was easy to produce or I was going to pass while doing the minimums). Being the one who can't produce is frustrating and will eventually turn you into one that won't do the work either.

hgfalling writes:

In high school, I was one of the top five students in my large private school. In applying for college I made several serious mistakes.

The first mistake was only seriously applying to Stanford and Caltech, assuming I would get in to one of those, and to UC Davis as a backup school for no particular reason other than that my mom went there. Instead I should have applied to a variety of schools and had more realistic expectations about how hard it is to get into top schools when you don't have a perfect record.

I didn't get into my 1/1a choice schools. Happily, UCD offered some kind of full-ride type scholarship, so that wasn't going to be that bad. They had some deal where all the students on the scholarship like me lived in a dorm together, so I signed up for that, and was corresponding with the school about it. So that seemed natural. Except that when I had gotten accepted, I was still waiting on the other schools so I threw the university paperwork in a drawer just in case. And (big mistake #2) never returned it.

We (parents and I) figured this out pretty late in the game, but the school was pretty accommodating. Except that housing was all full. So I went up there to find a place to live (off-campus) a couple weeks before school started. I actually found a pretty good setup, renting a room in a house from an older woman. I had just turned 17, though, and I wasn't exactly super-enthused about going to my backup school. Also there was this new thing called the Internet (this was 1994) that was pretty awesome and far more interesting than school. (Mistake #3)

So in the first quarter, I actually did attend some classes. I got an A in a physics class that met at 6:00pm near the graphics labs where I was spending most of the day playing netrek and MUDs. Morning classes, not so much. Second and third quarters I probably didn't actually make it to any classes IIRC. At some point it just became too embarrassing to show up, so I just kind of pretended to hope everything would work out somehow. There were a lot of bitter nights where I would walk back from the school after midnight telling myself that I was going to get it together and do XYZ. But it was like addiction. There are all these good intentions, but when it came down to it, I just never did what I was supposed to.

School kicked me out after 1 year, obviously. I went home and my parents were surprisingly cool about the whole thing. Got a job, went to night school for business. Later became a professional poker player, and will graduate this spring with an applied math PhD from Yale. So all's well that ends well, I guess.

WRD writes:

I have been bad at a couple of different subjects, especially at first. The worst part (for me) was not knowing how to improve.

It can be very frustrating and I had to channel that into either working harder or cutting my losses. I also had to optimize my time and class schedule, given time and resource constraints.

Jeff writes:

My situation was the same as Brad's above...being a bad student was tough because I'm a reasonably intelligent person, and I could excel when I was engaged and motivated. Problem was my motivation always waned quickly. I would, just like Brad, feel bad and a bit ashamed and frustrated with myself when I got my grades and they were subpar (only ever failed one class in college, but got plenty of B's and C's). So I would then resolve to do better the following semester, and I would, for about a month, maybe six weeks or so, and then I would run out of motivation again and go back to slacking off. Not studying, only skimming the nightly readings, not turning in homework, etc.

I suspect I might have done better at a school that used trimesters, given that that would have presumably increased the percentage of time each grading period where I was actually trying.

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

I was a bad student in a handful of subjects and did very well in others. That difference upset me before High School but I got over it by learning to tell myself: "I don't like those subjects and don't care if I do poorly in them. I'll just do better at the subjects I care about." Thus, I reallocated study time from the subjects I was bad at and detested to those that I was good at and enjoyed – creating even more lopsided grades, decreasing my anxiety, and increasing my enjoyment of school.

Hence I barely passed in chemistry (thanks to the intense tutoring of my science-whiz high school girl friend) while getting very high grades in history, the biological sciences, economics, political science, English, German, and some math courses.

Learning subjects I enjoyed was more important to me than maximizing my GPA.

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

Almost forgot . . . I also knew that doing poorly in some subjects wouldn't doom my future so long as I could show I was good at one subject. I still haven't used chemistry since 11th grade and don't regret spending more time studying American history.

Floccina writes:

I failed the 1st grade twice and the second grade once. It was pretty awful. I was punished by my parents and threatened by my teachers. The school eventually gave me an IQ test and I evidently did pretty good which made them put even more pressure on me to work harder and do better, but I hated school and every aspect of it. I was made fun of and humiliated by other students. I end up hang around with some bad characters who picked on me.

A little antidote:
I hated school so much that I started to raise my hand all the time to go to the rest room. When I go to go I would waste as much time as possible going and come back very late. After a while the teacher would ignore my raised hand and so I remember one day peeing my pants in my seat and being humiliated by the children around my laughing.

In the 3rd grade I started to turn things around and I wound up graduating from college. In the 3rd grade they sat next to the best student in the class for him to help me, which began a long friendship. He and I went to college together and ironically I graduated and he did not.

BTW I am still very bad at spelling and writing which was a big problem then.

Response to this here:

UE writes:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but comedians are often exceptionally clever and were by all accounts good students. Many big comedians in the UK attended Oxbridge.

Tracy W writes:

Not quite a bad student, but I have a slight speech disability. Before speech therapy I couldn't pronounce "th" sounds. My parents had a book with two page spreads dedicated to starting sounds and would try to get me to pronounce the "th" sounds. I had no idea how to pronounce them correctly, they had no idea why I was failing to. Consequence: I was being continually expected to do something I couldn't begin to do, so tried to avoid the situation as much as possible. I hated the "th" page.
Once I got speech therapy and the therapist taught me how to move my tongue and lips I was happy to read the "th" page.

Hazel Meade writes:

I can't say I was every a bad student, but my boyfriend is someone who is extremely smart and technically skilled, and yet, dropped out of high school, like Edward Snowden. He definitely has a lot of insecurities about his intellecual abilitys. And yet this is a guy who has: run a science fiction convention, produced a public access television show, ran underground computer hacking BBSes in the 90s, hacked into telephone lines for fun as a "phone phreaker", probably knows as much about computer security as Edward Snowden, was involved in several internet startups, and constantly follows new technology tech on Ars Technica and Hacker News amoung other things.

And yet ... he thinks that nobody will hire him because he has no degree and he's been unemployed too long.

nl7 writes:

I was a lazy student with good test scores. In the law school application world, they call this a "splitter" - a split between a low GPA and a high LSAT, which is essentially 'lazy but smart.' The opposite is the reverse splitter (low LSAT, high GPA - essentially 'average intelligence but hard-working')I was far lazier in college than in high school, and in my last year I skipped at least half my classes. I just wasn't interested and I didn't have a post-college plan so it was difficult to be motivated about doing nothing. I was far more motivated about law school and worked much harder at it. So my poor performance was partially elective.

My brother in law spent years in college, but he made loads of money at restaurants and so drifted away from college repeatedly. Despite several reboots, still hasn't managed to get his bachelor - but doesn't exactly need it as a salesman. Still, you can see he feels inadequate about it and he even uses the phrasing "if you're a college graduate, then [X]" as a way of saying that [X] is obvious. It's an awkward way to put it, so it really comes off like he uses that construction to place himself on the level of smart college grads. He's not dumb, but my impression is he feels inferior for not doing better at school.

Whether I did well or poorly was largely determined by whether I could successfully apply my preferred method of learning. At some point at school, I got slightly ahead of my fellow students, probably by developing a faster reading speed. This gave me more free time in class, and, having nothing else to do, I read the textbook. This put me further ahead and widened my lead - teachers considered me intelligent, but much of that was because I had read the textbook cover to cover ten times (since I did well in class, they didn't care if I read during lectures, whichever were usually short, anyway). This method didn't work well in classes that required arts and crafts projects (much of middle school). I was bad at them and I wasn't learning anything new, so I did poorly every time I had to do them, unless I could make my partners do the work instead. (In those lucky situations, I provided them with all the necessary information, so it wasn't like I didn't do anything.)

This approach didn't work at college at all. First, I couldn't read the textbook during lecture, both because the professors wanted everyone's attention, and because they taught things that weren't in the textbook. Second, the instructive quality of the texts worsened - instead of the clear explanations of my high school textbooks, my college textbooks explained things tersely and didn't give many examples (where relevant). Third, I had difficulty paying attention in lectures, not having had any longer than 15-30 minutes before college - so my mind wandered and I didn't get much from them. Fourth, I didn't particularly try to read the textbooks cover to cover, because I couldn't in class and had more fun things to do outside of class.
There were other differences as well. In high school, I had a reputation for being one of the smartest people at school in years, and I was willing to work to maintain that reputation, as well as to compete with other good students. College, where I started out average, inspired no competitiveness in me. Also, I felt somewhat embarrassed to go to office hours to talk to my professors when I had trouble. As a result, my grades were quite bad.

In the end, I graduated on schedule - but just barely.

Terra writes:

While I displayed quite a bit of academic talent as young child, I think the seeds were a combination of a lack of guidance in my youth, the closed off world from being brought up in a fundamentally religious home, and my high school having an inadequate culture of valuing academic success.

Anti-intellectualism was something I eventually absorbed from my peers and our culture. And thus the concept of academic exploration in search of something that resonated with me personally, rather than uninspiringly and unsuccessfully pursuing a scripted path, was something I discovered post academic failure.

I've love to have more conscientiousness than I've shown thus far, however I'm fortunate enough to have some intellectual talent. So while I'm not as young as I wish to be, those factors plus lifespan being long is enough that I should remain optimistic in the hope of accomplishing future goals.

My advice to help bad students, is to get them to minimize personal ruin, such as debt, having children, or drastically ruining their health (ie. drugs, STDs, injury). Quitting an expensive college early, avoiding credit cards, maintaining minimal employment, using condoms, and staying away from destructive environments and peers will minimize their downside or left-tail life decisions. Eventually they'll figure life out a bit, and will not have such a low floor that they can't recover.

The goal is to maintain alot of the advantages we associate with a person in their 20's, while avoiding the burdens and ruin often associated with middle-age. Then one can be older, yet still have a high enough floor to take advantage of learning from the lessons of their youth.

Roman Lombardi writes:

My first grade report card said (paraphrasing), "Roman has incredible potential, but only does what he needs to do to get by." This is the theme that I carried into adulthood. I would procrastinate to have fun which felt great, but the inevitable doom of showing up unprepared with marginal, sometimes incomplete work was horrible (albeit, not horrible enough to change my behavior). The feelings that come to mind are: Inadequate, shameful, wasteful, embarrassed and fear. I was a chronic underachiever who only applied myself to classes that I was interested in. I had no self-discipline. I always got A's in civics and social studies…sometimes A's in math if the teacher was engaging, but that was rare. By the age of 17 I had dropped out and was drinking alcohol every day. By 18 I was addicted to heroin. by 23 I had been arrested several times and did my first prison stint. Against all odds, I got sober at 25. I don't know if this is indicative of my intelligence, or how low the GED bar is, but I took all five tests (Math, English, Science, Social Studies and one other I can't recall) with no preparation at all, and got 90% or higher on them all. I've developed a career and have a comfortable life…I earn in the 80-85th percentile…I still have feelings of shame around this today…thank God I was born in America. Had I been born elsewhere, I doubt I would have found my second chance. My dream in life is to earn a degree in economics from GMU. But I am a little long in the tooth, and providing for my family takes precedence. So I'll instead settle for reading EconLog :-)

Roman Lombardi writes:

An addendum: With regard to comparing sorrows, failure in school was one of my first and greatest sorrows…disappointing a loving family sucked. I've redeemed myself with them, so that part isn't really sorrowful anymore. Today, my sorrow has to do will realizing my own unfulfilled potential…it stings bad…

JKB writes:

Well, school came easy to me but I can contrast that to my cousin who was a year behind and probably what you mean by "bad student". He was always in trouble. My aunt was at school at least every week. I know now he has dyslexia and still requires intense concentration to read. Guess my brother and my idea of giving him porn to read was an effective solution. Even back in the '70s they wanted to dope him but his mother refused.

My aunt and I were discussing school not long ago. She told me a story about my cousin. The teacher announced the search for student to write for the school paper. My cousin took his application up to her but this moron of education embarrassed him by telling him he needed to learn to read first. Well, this earned her two days of having a chair kicked all during class. My aunt was called. She had to point out to the principal and teacher why she was getting paid back for embarrassing him. But she did put a stop to it.

Now, lest you think my cousin wasn't smart, I'll just point out, after his knew blew out playing college ball, he got his degree in exercise physiology, worked for a sports medicine group, trained olympic athletes. His mother, a nurse, tells of being floored when she sat in on a class he was teaching to see her kid who student life was a battle, write foot-long medical terms on the board as he explained them to the students.

You won't find him here as he doesn't understand why I waste time on blogs.

I would hypothesize the "bad student" suffers a lot of embarrassment and act out in retaliation. Not to mention settling into a sport to gain positive attention in school.

Eli writes:

Appreciate the coax Bryan, but I'll try to keep this from becoming my grand underachiever story.

My brother, two years younger than I, is receiving is Ph.D in physics. We were raised in essentially the same way, treated like twins most of the time. I discount nurture as a viable reason, but one way or another I ended up being a terrible student and him an excellent one. I dropped out of college after accruing lots of debt, worked as a barista for Starbucks, and that's where my 26 year-old self remains to this day.

I didn't show up to class, didn't turn in homework, and failed to learn the material in almost every single class I went to. I was uninterested because what I was learning neither seemed to have any practical implications, nor was stimulating in a knowledge-for-the-sake-of-knowledge sort of way. Moreover I felt virtually no pressure coming from my teachers. Whatever pressure they laid on my to perform better was too polite to be accelerating. And they often appealed to my self-interest. Unlike my workplace, where I felt others were counting on me and I became excellent on my job because of it, in school if I didn't perform the consequences were mine. It was still a puzzle back then, what made me go and what made me stay, but looking back I believe it was that other people counting on me triggered my conscientiousness. At work other's counted on me, at school they didn't.

I went to university, then a community college, in the first place because that's where the people close to me said I should go. Smart people go to college, there was nothing else to think about. When I began failing, I was told to double down, reinvest. If I'm not doing well then I should ease the burden of work by taking out more loans. I did. Then not only did I continue to fail my classes, but I also became very unhappy from not getting to be as active at my job.

I felt extremely miserable at the time. I felt extraordinary pressure, not from my teachers, but from my loved ones who would urge me to "stay in school" as the slogan goes. I felt tremendous pressure from people around me to go to school, but I felt no pressure to succeed in it since they were unaware of my progress. I felt like a loser as my failure unfolded for all to see. My girlfriend's (now wife) parents had a very difficult time with her being with someone without a degree. When speaking with me they always avoided language which referred to values which they themselves regarded as superficial, like money or social status, but that's what it was. It was always framed as, "doing something with your life". I found it strange how serving customers at work and satisfying my intellectual curiosities in my spare time weren't "somethings".

I had to feel like a failure for several years before I got over it. I still have to deal with "you're smart, go to college" people at work, but it doesn't bother me. I guess it took until a year or two after I dropped out for the failure feelings to go away. I felt stupid. I get that a degree is correlated with intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity, but the intelligence one is the one that hurts the most (strange since it is also the one people have least power over). A lack of intelligence is correlated with not having a degree, and that's the presumption from which people approach me. What can I say? That would be my presumption too. It still is when I approach most people in situations similar to mine.

After I got over it though, life got a lot better. The social pressure to "succeed" was the toughest part of not succeeding. Once I got over it, shopping at Wal-Mart and driving a clucker wasn't that bad. I work, I eat, I think, and I play games. It is pretty incredible. I wish I had never gone to school in the first place, I would have been much happier and I wouldn't have so much debt right now. The more I conquered the college = success ethos, the happier I became.

Tim Worstall writes:

I've always been exceptionally lazy so I have, obviously, always been a bad student. But there was a time when I became an exceptionally bad one....

I was doing A Level maths....about equal to freshman or sophmore level at a US university. You get properly into calculus, you're integrating and so on.

And I simply stopped understanding what the subject was about. I could do the stats side of it, no problem. And I could work through the calculus problems: as long as I knew exactly what technique was to be used I could crunch through to get the numerical answer.

I even knew, conceptually, what we were trying to talk about, rates of change and so on.

But none of it actually made sense. I then found out that some of my peers could read equations as easily as I could read a sentence in English. Take some 5 or 6 "thing" equation (a squared being one "thing", b cubed being another say), I was at the language reading equivalent of "that's a c, that's an a, that's a t so therefore they must mean "cat"" and they had roared through the sentence "the cat sat on the mat" to work out who it was opening the can of sardines in the kitchen.

This is something I could just never get. And as to composing equations I was simply helpless. Couldn't get the hang of it at all. I actually ended up answering one (later, at college) financial economics question by writing five paragraphs of English rather than five lines of maths simply because I couldn't understand the equations. Although I understood the question and how to get the answer (still recall the basics of the question. You have to borrow money at interest to buy dog food. You have to pay for petrol to go buy dog food. So, how much dog food do you buy each time you go? Obviously, where the interest you pay is equal to the cost of petrol.) I had absolutely no comprehension of the language of mathematics that people were trying to teach me.

The same is till true now. Put something into English and I'm usually fine with it. Start using mathematical symbols and I'm entirely, totally, lost. I just don't think that way.

So, I could indeed say that I was a very bad maths student.

However, I would go on to say that this made me a rather good economics student. Laurence Peters and his Peter Principle. Everyone is promoted to their own level of incompetence. When I came across that when I was about 19 I understood it immediately. That's what had happened to me in maths. Precisely because I could do the arithmetic and the stats I was urged on to do ever yet more maths and so met my level of incompetence.

Much the same happened to me in music. I roared through the lower levels of trumpet playing, good technique, nice timbre, got through what we call Grade VI no problems. But try as I might I could not crack Grade VIII (the sort of level you need before thinking about music as a university degree) because I simply could not get this theory of music stuff. How on earth do you tell the difference between a third and a fourth by ear? Transposing from key to key? Sing in tune? How do people do these things?

I'd learnt the Peter Principle personally, twice, before I was 18.

Ever since then I've really only done the things that I find easy and ignored or avoided the things I find difficult. Which makes me, in one sense, an appallingly bad student for it means that I've never bothered to work hard at understanding something: the basis of study of course.

On the other hand it's also a perfect encapsulation of Ricardo on Comparative Advantage. Everyone should be doing the thing they're least bad at. We are all better off for my not trying to use calculus to design bridges (or economies) after all.

Hallie Scott Kline writes:

Thanks, Bryan, for asking about this. It feels good to be heard, and it's nice to know you care about the students who struggle.

I was always scattered and inattentive; never very studious at any age. According to teachers and parents, I possessed a respectable IQ and "unlimited potential." There was no evidence, though, to support their contention, then or now.

It is my belief that I am just "average." My parents and teachers were just "puffing" about my supposed intellectual capabilities, IMO. They meant well; probably hoped to motivate me with encouragement, since i was lazy and remarkably un-ambitious at that time (and the other times, before and since).

I have no graduate degree and this is not my area of expertise. I know little about intellectual abilities, or of changing the course of struggling students, or how to know if it's attitude or if it's IQ to blame. I know nothing about any of it (or, anything else) but that has never stopped me...

It is my belief that my IQ is no better than average, and may not be as capable as even that. As a college graduate, I am supposed to be above average, but I doubt I am. I am lucky many subjects come easily to me—I’ve aced most classes without breaking a sweat. I have been a bad student, too, though, sometimes through no fault of my own. It can bring about a feeling of hopelessness and a feeling of being so far behind. It’s as if those around me are speaking Chinese, and I don’t understand a word of it. Computer Science, high-level Financial Management, and, other than Geometry, ALL higher Math courses have me lost on day one. I cannot ask questions because I’m too lost to know what to ask.

There are classes in which I've been a lousy student after making a series of poor decisions. There are other classes though that had me floundering from the start. I could not comprehend anything and could not imagine ever catching up.

Zamba writes:

I failed badly in most of the quantitative subjects during college (economics). People tend to think you are dumb, and that hurts a little bit. I was too much of an anarchist that time. I liked to learn and to think, but I was too much absorbed into existential questions, for instance. Understanding life, society and politics took too much of my time.

I dunno if anyone here will relate to me. I'm Brazilian, and you Americans seem to me to be rather pragmatic. I didn't fully developed the sense of duty and responsibility until I graduated from college. Fortunatelly enough for me, to apply for a master degree here in Brazil, you need to take a very hard test. So my grades didn't mattered, I just studied a lot of math and statistics and took the test (although even studying hard I didn't got good a grade, hehe). I had the chance to fix my immaturity, then.

Cole writes:

I was a bad student in some of my classes (not just a lazy one), and it was easily one of the most miserable degrading experiences of my life.

You try to pay attention in class, but it sounds like they are speaking a foreign language. You didn't miss the first day of class, this IS the first day of class, and you can tell immediately that you are woefully unprepared.

You make jokes about being stupid and not trying hard, but in reality you are working your ass off to just get a 'D'. The 'F's you start getting back on assignments are not a surprise, just a slap in the face reminder of how it felt last week to turn in the work knowing it wasn't good enough.

You quickly reach a point of desperation. Escape is always the first thing on your mind, 'please not another day in that class where I have to feel stupid and inadequate.' Class is dropped if you can. If you have to stay in it you turn to others for help. You need something, anything to get your mind out of a malaise and start learning.

I would get help and start learning, but it was only ever enough to not fall further behind. It was always a semester that felt like drowning in slow motion. It was a desperate frantic struggle just to stay above water and keep breathing.

I was generally a good student in most classes, but having to struggle through being a bad student made me infinitely more sympathetic to the people that struggled at the subjects I was good at. Even if it made me a better person, I would never voluntarily go through that experience.

Roger Sweeny writes:

There is (sort of) a bad student experience that just about all teachers have: professional development. Professional developments are whole or half days where students don't come in and teachers are supposed to be taught how to be better teachers. Alas, the content is usually atrocious--irrelevant or unrealistic. The presentation is often bad, too.

I generally shut up and grumble silently to myself. But I am constantly surprised by how rude many of my fellow teachers are, making cutting remarks or just engaging in conversation while the presenter is trying to get her material across. Stuff we hate when students do it in our own classes. I've even seen teachers doing grading in a PD.

I have said (originally in jest, now totally seriously) that the most important thing teachers get from most professional development is the thought, "Do my students feel as bad as I do now? Do they think my class is this boring and pointless? Do they want to get out as much as I do? I have to make sure they don't feel like I do now."

BTW: little of what gets "taught" in professional development ever gets used by the teachers who were "taught" it.

TallDave writes:

In fourth grade, they introduced the concept of "homework."

The horror. My God, the horror. I have never recovered.

Schepp writes:

I as many others could give you the I am good but lazy student story. But I think your question is more inregard to how it feels to be a bad student. So I will focus my answer on that period, when I was not doing well.

It of course starts out with a feeling that you have it. This is boring, boring, boring but I know I have it. It then transforms to OMG there is a lot to do and I have done nothing. At this point I ussually had a 70% chance of pulling it out and getting a B on the final to get a C or 30% chance of not passing.

I had the most difficulty in classes like econometric modeling where everything appeared to me to be focused on a set procedural steps and context seemed to be missing.

My favorite example is after 3 days of lecturing on multicollinearity and the intricate means of calculating it. I asked the professor if the only example she selected to work through the whole process was statistically significant and her reply was "no." Without hesitation or any thought of how much better it would have been to select an actual example, she proceeded to the next subject.

I think now it was my weakness, and know that more rigor even in the in vane would have been better for my future career. But I know had many classes where you have these moments where there is no contextuaul understanding, and I just did not believe the educational institution had any interest in intellectual learning. I completely agree, they properly identified me a student that would not follow directions when they seemed silly. I have mixed feelings of whether it served me to be a rebel or if it would have been better to conform.

In recent experience I tried John Cochrane's Coursera Asset Management Course. Like most students out of my league, I just stop going.

Graham Peterson writes:

I am an awful student, to this day, and I am now a PhD student. I was an even more awful student in high school, which I failed out of -- three times. I was the "if he would just apply himself" bad student, because ultimately they thought I was smart. Not applying myself was a way to rebel against my parents and formal institutions. I suspect that people who lack IQ, and who perform badly in school, suffer more from their attitude than their lack of IQ -- school is not difficult. It's important to note the environmental circumstances of bad students, though. Emphasizing individual deviance for bad students often just confirms for them that they are to blame for harms coming from other directions (family, peers, the school itself), which they are already internalizing inappropriately and reacting to.

John Csekitz writes:

As I read the comments, clearly the commenters’ ability was high even when their achievements were sub-par.

I was a terrible student in what was called Jr High at the time (7th, 8th, 9th grade) but like so many of the commenters I was also blessed for it was my choices not my ability that earned me the title.

The crescendo was Algebra in 9th grade; my parents got me a private tutor because I was failing and I became very good in the technical course work; but I hated the teacher and she hated me. I would do the homework but refuse to hand it in grade (0) every quarter. I would use techniques taught to me by my tutor when up at the blackboard that the other students did not yet understand. To me my job was to make the teacher look bad. I thought that an A on every test would get me a passing grade….It didn’t. I earned a 98% on the final exam, an (A) on almost every test and she failed me for the year.

I spent my summer peddling my bike 8 miles one way to summer school to be with the kids who actually couldn’t get it.

To this day I can’t come to a conclusion whether my 9th grade Algebra teacher was the best teacher or the worst teacher I ever had; we had a terrible relationship, but in my attempt to prove her wrong I became very skilled at the coursework which I use to this day.

On a side note it shows how education has changed since 1980; can any of you imagine the outcry today if a pin-headed but competent student earned a 98% on the final exam, A(s) on the tests throughout the year, and flunked. Back then it was her classroom.

NZ writes:

I was a stellar student in elementary school and in college, but I was a terrible high school student. Teachers liked me because I was bright and articulate, but this is in spite of the many reasons I gave them not to like me:

I once ignited a bowlful of black powder on the chemistry teacher's desk, filling the room with smoke and sparks. Don't ask me why I did it. Also, don't ask me why any sane person would ever teach a roomful of teenagers how to make black powder and then have them do it as part of chemistry class. Thanks to me, the teacher swore off ever teaching that particular lesson ever again.

I sometimes got drunk at lunch. I snuck off campus even though it was prohibited to do so. I was occasionally rude to teachers and staff. I was certainly rude to other students. I was late to classes or skipped them entirely. I engaged in sexual activity on school grounds. I treated detention as a cost to be weighed rather than as a disincentive to be avoided. I did drugs after school, and not just on weekends. I seldom did homework, and seldom put effort into it when I did. I wore inappropriate clothing. I used to hang around the teachers I liked most and annoy them with questions and banter while they were trying to work. In my senior year I bribed a teacher for a passing grade so that I could graduate, and it worked: he passed me with a 48% and I graduated on time with a GPA in the mid 2s.

Back then, I felt fine about all this. I was even a little proud about it.

Looking back now it's amusing but also embarrassing, and I'm very grateful that I was able to reform myself and turn my life around.

By the way, I know it's common to have that dream where you're back in high school and you're trying to find your class and you don't have your book and you have no idea what the homework was and you can't find your pants, etc. but I have that dream all the time, and for me it's not too far off from what much of my high school experience was really like.

dullgeek writes:

I don't know if I qualify as a bad student or not. In elementary school, we had two grades that we received. One for subject matter expertise and the other for effort. I would consistently get the highest marks on subject matter, and the lowest marks on effort.

What would happen is that during school, I would pay attention and learn what needed to be learned. But when it came to homework, I would never do it. I didn't feel it was necessary to do the homework since I was pretty sure I learned the material. My parents pushed hard for me to do the homework anyway, which was, of course total drudgery.

I developed a true hatred for homework. I was able to get away with skipping homework and testing well all the way through high school. But when I entered college, it was a completely different experience. The study habits that I'd developed up to that point weren't going to cut it in college. Unfortunately, it was hard to overcome the lack of discipline I'd cultivated. I'd grown accustomed to having a lot of freetime outside of the classroom, and I stubbornly refused to change.

In courses that were interesting to me, I still excelled. Doing homework in those courses was actually fun. So it felt like freetime. But in courses that were required, I would rarely pass, and I'd have to take the course again. Of course, taking the course a second time around made it much easier to pass. I eventually finished college by adding an extra year.

I thoroughly loved the social experience in college. However, I wish I could go back and apply a bit more discipline to the educational experience. I wonder what opportunities I would have now if I'd been more disciplined then.

Panzersage writes:

I was a bad student in primary education. I never did my homework except the bare minimum to pass the class. As homework made up between 10-30% of the grade I always had at best a B in any class and a C in the others. If I did get any points for homework it would be when it wasn't immediately collected at the start of class and I sat there during the lesson rushing it.

Why do my homework tonight when I could play StarCraft or read a book? Let me tomorrow deal with that.

The only thing that saved me was that I was still a bright student. I did excellent on the tests and learned the information. I didn't need the homework to practice or learn so I ignored it.

I never talked back to the teachers and was able to answer their questions and engage them. In group projects I always did more than my share of work for the group.

I ended up graduating in the bottom quarter of my grade. I only got into University due to a high SAT score, teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities.

It wasn't till in University that I had my first girlfriend, ever, who got me to skip classes and have to retake a semester that I got my act together and took school seriously. Turns out being smart wasn't enough when you never even sat through a class to hear the material.

I ended up graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering 8 years ago and am now doing work I love and getting paid well.

Looking back at my younger self I should have tried harder and I thank my lucky stars as a few bad test grades could have cost me everything I have today. All I cared about was the immediate satisfaction, short term benefits. All I know is that I got very very lucky.

Andrew MacKay writes:

Finding the interplay between discipline and motivation is the key. Like many, I do very well at things I enjoy, but cannot force myself to do something well if my heart is not remotely in it.

I was bright enough in pre-university school that I could just go to class, pay attention, and coast by with B+/A- grades, and at the time, this was good enough for me.

In college, I found myself incapable of studying hard because I had never done that before.

This caused me to reject academia as valid use of my time - By midway through my junior year I had enough credits for a BA in Econ and I was ready to get out and make something of myself, instead of wasting my time finishing core requirements at age 21.

I loved macroeconomics, and as I entered the professional world, I found blogging to be a casual, go-at-your-own-pace way for me to selectively view economic material as it suited my desires or natural motivations, rather than as part of a curriculum. After a year of reading mainly Yglesias, Sumner, Krugman, Kliein, Mankiew etc I realized I was way more engaged and could explain concepts I remember being forced to study like a machine for school, but now having a more real world application and forum for discussion. My ability to contend with family, friends, and co-workers in discussions has skyrocketted.


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