Is it worse when bad students do well or when good students do badly?

5 Apr




This is a question that occurred to me in a frenzy of test marking that took place last month…  I’m interested to know what people think!

I’d appreciate your answer before you read on….

Having gone through fifty odd tests and looked at the scores, there were quite a few surprises in there.  Students who are attentive and hard working in the classroom who scored very poorly and of course the opposite – students who do the bare minimum and who mess around and who lack focus and who confound expectations by doing well.

So what does that tell us?

Mostly it tells me that labelling students as “good” or “bad” is not a particularly helpful activity and in fact I know this already and have written about it before in “The Myth of the Good Student“.

It also tells me that behaviour does not equal learning and just because something looks like learning, doesn’t mean it is learning.  I remember a student who, at a previous parent teacher conference had been exhorted to try harder, started sitting up and writing stuff down more during lessons and doing the coursebook exercises promptly and with reasonable efficiency.  Upon slightly closer monitoring however, it turned out that he was literally just moving his pencil over the page in random squiggly lines and then putting it down and saying “finished” when there were enough other students doing the same to hide in amongst.  I’m not sure what he thought it would achieve, but it is probably a tactic that works in other contexts, where there are thirty odd students in the class and the teacher doesn’t get beyond the first row very often.

There is a part of me though that believes effort, when it is made, should be rewarded.  When I see the “good students” who proactively write things down and try to do the activities and exercises properly and who try to practice the language, and who give every appearance of being bright, keen and engaged – when I see them fail or score poorly it gets to me.  I want them to feel like the time and hard work they put in was FOR something.

The flip side of that of course, is that it ever so slightly annoys me when the students who don’t do any of the work and who muck about in the lessons just breeze through the tests without any apparent effort at all.  There are of course any number of reasons why they might behave the way they do, one of which might well be that they know it all and don’t need to make the effort because it is familiar ground to them.  Or they could be swans.  Effortlessly gliding on the surface whilst underneath they are paddling furiously – they might go home to parents who sit with them for an hour a day doing homework or extra reading….  You just don’t know.

So my answer to the question is that it’s probably worse when the good students do badly, but there is a third option which I didn’t put into the poll:  when bad students do badly.  I think this is probably worst of all, just because if the intention and motivation isn’t there, it’s very difficult to get them back on track again.  But let me know what you think…..

child staring school window


4 Responses to “Is it worse when bad students do well or when good students do badly?”

  1. Costas Gabrielatos Tuesday 5 April 2016 at 19:51 #

    When ‘good’ students do ‘badly’ and/or ‘bad’ students do ‘well’ at a test.

    Explanation 1: The test is unreliable.

    Explanation 2: The ‘good’ student had a bad day / the ‘bad’ student cheated.

    Explanation 3: The teacher’s criteria for ‘good/bad student’ are unreliable.

    Explanation 4: Any combinations of the above.

  2. Miss Andi Wednesday 6 April 2016 at 05:27 #

    I don’t think it’s bad when a “bad” student performs well on the test. As you said there can be so many explanations why someone’s a “bad” student and if their learning approach works, however unconventional or unexpected, I’d let them be. Perhaps it may be a good idea to have a discussion about learning methods with the class if you’re curious why they fared so well – the students can learn some tips from each other and you’d have your answer too 😊
    Nice post to make us think, thank you!

  3. Ethan Wednesday 6 April 2016 at 11:51 #

    An interesting read! One does feel bad when an attentive, hard working, good student scores poorly. But then again we have to take into account that not every student as the same level of grasping power. So a student who fools around in classroom can score well if he is a fast learner and vice versa.

  4. Clare Thursday 7 April 2016 at 07:01 #

    Hi David,

    I can totally understand your feelings on this – if I’m honest I also feel bad for students who work so hard and don’t achieve so well, and ever so slightly annoyed when students who disrupt my classes and are not engaged do very well.
    But I think it’s also partly a problem of having mixed-ability classes. Maybe the ‘bad’ students who do well are just bored? And the ‘good’ students may be busy, but that doesn’t mean that know good learning strategies, and would probably benefit from more support. We are but human, and when faced with a 30+ group of mixed-ability students, we just have to try our best to accommodate all of them. Which situation is better or worse…. I can’t say really, so sorry for not answering your question on that front! But yes… you are not alone on feeling this frustration!


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