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Challenge yourself with your academic writing: A Writing and Learning Peer's perspective

Challenge yourselves and each other to see what you can accomplish!
Published July 7, 2020 by Julia Lane

Writing papers is either the bane of an undergraduate student’s existence or, for the few like me, it’s an experience that can be learned from. But I didn’t always think like this.

The change came in reconfiguring my focus when it came to writing papers or doing assignments in general. I shifted from choosing topics that would make for an easier paper and better grade (or at least I thought), to choosing a topic that would push me as a student and writer. These were topics that I may not not have encountered before, or that required making connections that weren’t immediately discernible. In short, these were papers that pushed me to work harder. What I realized soon after is that not only did I succeed in improving my analytical and writing skills, but choosing to do more challenging work also meant higher grades.

SFU’s official and unofficial social media communities are often awash with students asking for “easy” GPA booster recommendations. However, these “GPA boosters” will only help students so much, if at all. The reason many students consider these courses to be GPA boosters is because most don’t find them as challenging — and that can become problematic. 

Challenging oneself, stepping out of a comfort zone, or trying new things can often yield the best experiences at university. In the case of choosing a topic that is more complex and nuanced, it can yield a better quality paper. It allows the student to better craft an argument that has multiple levels, one that requires deeper levels of thought that improve critical thinking skills. Having done this myself, it also made me a better researcher and writer, because I had to put more effort into finding relevant information and figuring out the best way to use it. I further discovered how my processes of learning and working function because I had to push myself.

That is the real GPA booster.

Taking on challenging coursework has additional benefits, aside from those that increase understanding across multiple, related topics. Professors and TAs really notice when students put in extra effort in taking on a challenging paper. This is because instructors have to grade an absurd number of papers, and when they are reading the same paper, just dressed a little differently again and again, it can be hard for A-quality work to be noticed. By writing a paper that takes time to make connections outside of class topics or material, or one that really tries to understand a topic on a deeper analytical level, students can make their work stand out and show that they know how to use the critical thinking skills that often count for a sizable chunk of a grade.

This isn’t to say that attempting a challenging topic is easy — it’s not. And poorly executing a difficult paper is not going to do students any favours. There will be a learning curve at first, and students may not be successful or have the opportunity to do this for every paper. However, for longer papers that are worth a higher percentage, choosing a challenging topic may increase the likelihood of a higher grade because these papers often require and have space for this kind of effort. Speaking from personal experience, students who try integrating personally challenging topics into their coursework will eventually get accustomed to it and won’t know any other way. 

Choosing to put forth less effort in order to save time and energy will more often than not only result in average work and, it follows, an average grade. Students will only get out of university what they put in. Students may be able to get away with this level of effort now, but that won’t always be the case. University will only get more difficult from here on out, and after that, commitments to low-effort won’t do students any favours in life after undergrad. 

Whether students plan to go into a graduate program or straight into their profession of choice, the projects and tasks that they’ll have to complete will require the kinds of effort I’ve just outlined. Getting comfortable with doing challenging or unfamiliar work in an undergraduate program will have a great impact on how students deal with the increased responsibilities of post-grad adult life. 

University is a time to expand our knowledge, develop new skills, push the boundaries of mental capacities — it isn’t a time to become complacent.

- Harvin Bhathal, Peak Associate & SLC Writing and Learning Peer 

Originally published in The Peak: https://the-peak.ca/2020/06/more-students-should-challenge-themselves-in-academic-writing/

Re-posted here with gratitude