Can taking an elective module help boost your grade?

Work smart not hard. The maxim loved in the corporate world might also hold the key to academic success, suggests Eilidh Wagstaff

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) suggests undergraduates should think strategically and creatively about the modules they choose if they’re looking for an easy way to boost their grades. In 2012, 30 per cent of maths students graduated with firsts compared with only 11 per cent of law students. The logic follows that if an undergraduate takes an elective module in a subject that statistically appears to be easier to score highly in, then this might help their overall marks. But statistics are always open to interpretation...

Slackers should steer clear of seeing elective modules as soft options. Sure, there are examples of students who breeze through their electives. “It wasn’t very complicated” says Louise Taylor, who studies English Literature and French at the University of Warwick, about the beginners’ Latin module she took and received a mark of 92 per cent for.

Equally, there are plenty of students who take modules in what they see as ‘doss’ subjects, only to score badly in them. Different subjects require and develop different ways of thinking.  Students who do well in elective modules are the ones who use their refined skillset to approach new subjects in an innovative and original way. It doesn’t always go so well for the ones who assume their naturally superior intelligence will be enough to see them through ‘walk-in-the-park’ modules. A relatively high proportion of maths students might get firsts but this doesn’t mean that it’s an easy subject.  

Where does playing to your strengths end and cheating begin? Anecdotal evidence suggests there’s been a rise in the number of bilingual students signing up to do beginners modules in their native languages in order to artificially inflate their grades. Universities have procedures in place to guard against this kind of thing happening.  If a student averages 2:2s throughout the year then does miraculously well in one language exam, the Board of Examiners will probably notice, and either scale the mark appropriately or disregard the result altogether. Dishonestly using elective modules as a way of gaining easy credit is definitely risky.

There is more to university than achieving a top grade and so much more to taking an elective than just getting a good mark. For undergraduates, choosing an elective module can be a way of sampling different careers, without having to go down the unpaid internship route. If you’re studying for a non-vocational degree like philosophy, taking a module in marketing, photography, or accounting could help make your decision about what to do after university that bit easier. You could even take an elective module because you think you might enjoy it! A geology student who has never acted before in their life might not score particularly highly in a theatre studies elective, but if they have a mind-opening life-affirming experience while doing so, it might not be such a loss. 

Breaking free from sameness is healthy. Switching from speed-reading 19th century novels to constructing algorithms is difficult but, if you’re willing to push yourself, you’ll probably end up scoring much more highly than you would have done taking a middle-of-the-road module option. Clearly there are many positive reasons for taking elective modules.

Just do me a favour and don’t take a level one Spanish module if you grew up in Madrid.

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