I've found myself in a paradoxical situation. I have failed modules over and over, many modules, some modules more than once. One of the failed modules was introduction to computing. After passing it I felt an urge to write lecture notes because I though that the "official" lecture notes made by two teachers of the computer science department were too shallow and unappealing. I took some time to write it and publish in a free webhosting service.

Now I'm feeling like continuing that type of work, expanding it to more modules, such as physics and calculus. It seems that explaning things with plain english, doing comparisons and following a straight path is kinda easy for me. Although I did fail so many modules so many times.

Is the correlation between learning a subject and having high grades strong?

Conversely, is the correlation between not properly learning a subject and having really bad grades strong?

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    Have the notes you wrote been used in lectures and rigorously assessed? Or, to get more to the nub of it, how do you know that you've learnt any of these subjects?
    – 410 gone
    Oct 26, 2014 at 4:05

4 Answers 4


There's no general answer to the question. It depends on the individual course.

  • If the course is designed so that grades are earned for demonstrating achievement of a learning outcome, then there will be a strong correlation between having high grades and achieving the learning outcomes of the course.
  • If the course is designed so that grades are earned for things that don't demonstrate achievement of a learning outcome, or so that students can achieve a learning outcome but not have an opportunity to demonstrate it to earn a grade, then the correlation will be weak.

Also, your general description of "learning a subject" may not necessarily be strongly correlated with the desired learning outcomes of a course. It's possible to earn a poor grade for a well-designed course even after having "learned the subject" if the course has specific learning outcomes (i.e., "Students will know how to solve a certain class of problem," "Students will have learned this particular skill") and what you are learning about the subject happens to be orthogonal to those learning outcomes.

  • I've heard students criticizing teachers that either repeat the same exam paper every year or make questions that assess memorization, causing a negative correlation. I didn't have classes with one of them though.
    – 0 kelvin
    Oct 26, 2014 at 2:25
  • @0kelvin I think you mean "no correlation" rather than "negative correlation". Negative correlation between grades and understanding would be funny - in that case, correctly answering the questions would directly show a complete lack of understanding of the material :D
    – xLeitix
    Oct 27, 2014 at 18:35

The correlation between learning facts and getting good grades at the postgraduate level isn't particularly strong, no.

At lower levels an appearance of education can be simulated by the rote learning of facts. But that becomes less true as the education level increases. By postgraduate level, although some facts are useful, it's much more about being able to use academic tools, to be familiar with theories and their strengths and weaknesses, and being able to think things through deeply and critically.

  • 4
    I don't see anything about "learning facts" in the original question. Granted, "learning a subject" is so broad it's difficult to say what the OP is referring to.
    – ff524
    Oct 26, 2014 at 4:03
  • To give a practical example: in Calculus 1, a student should be able to understand the proofs and do the calculations. But it also means memorizing the rules of calculus to some extent.
    – 0 kelvin
    Oct 26, 2014 at 20:17

No. I can recall many things that I learned in college 45 years ago from classes in which I received poor grades, and I have forgotten things from classes in which I received good grades.

  • Could you expand on this answer?
    – gerrit
    Oct 27, 2014 at 19:24
  • Asked and answered.
    – Myra
    Oct 27, 2014 at 20:01
  • "Learning a subject" and "remembering a subject 45 years later" are not equivalent. Claiming a weak correlation between grade earned and recall decades later doesn't really answer the question as asked.
    – ff524
    Oct 28, 2014 at 17:27
  • I have remembered all along, not just recently, much from classes that I got poor grades in.
    – Myra
    Oct 28, 2014 at 17:30

A few notes:

  • Are you actually allowed to post lecture notes online? Many schools or professors will take exception to this.
  • I will disagree with some other answers: there isn't a correlation with learning materials and having high grades, but, there is a correlation between knowing enough at a given point in the class and having high grades, if the class is taught well. That is, if you know what you should know at a given point, your grade is more likely to be higher. However, just because you are learning a lot doesn't mean your grade is necessarily good.
  • [Edit: wording improved] You mentioned you're studying computing. As CS grad student, I can tell you that studying computing is somewhat different from studying other fields: you cannot "learn" computing in the same way you learn other subjects. Memorizing facts and techniques aren't enough; the largest part of succeeding at computing is understanding at a deep level the implications of the facts. (This is of course important in other fields too, but you can get away with rote learning for longer. In CS, though, lack of understanding is an immediate path to failure.)
    • To prove this, I will mention that I never took notes in my CS classes. I didn't because while the lecture was proceeding, I was internalizing everything I didn't know already, and then applying it every chance I got. Guess who did better.
    • To elaborate, practice and application are literally the most important things to do when studying computing.
  • I agree with the commenter that you need to ensure that what you think you are learning is actually correct. For a technical field, it is easy to screw yourself up with mistaken beliefs. Computing, in particular, is a field where being a smartass is a prerequisite. You need to be highly attuned to very slight differences in meaning, and if you're going at it alone, you're going to miss things. Talk with the professor. Talk to your TA. We're there to help you understand these finer points and check yourself.
  • 3
    "I can tell you that computing is somewhat different from other fields [...] the largest part of succeeding at computing is understanding at a deep level the implications of the facts.": While in other fields, instead...
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Oct 26, 2014 at 8:12
  • 1
    You cannot "learn" computing. — Wow. I assume either you are not a native English speaker or your education has been incredibly substandard, because otherwise you would know that "learn" does not mean "memorize". You can learn computing, but (like everything else) only by actually doing it.
    – JeffE
    Oct 26, 2014 at 16:15
  • @JeffE: Did you actually look it up? The definition of learn is "to acquire knowledge of or skill in". This is also the way in which educators use the term. It is also something you cannot only do to succeed in computing. Knowledge and skill aren't enough. You need understanding. My immediate next sentence made this abundantly clear.
    – imallett
    Oct 26, 2014 at 17:51
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    @GraphicsResearch I don't need to look it up; it's my job. Yes, this is indeed the way that educators like me use the term "learn". By your own admission, you are claiming that "You cannot acquire knowledge or skill in computing." This is laughably wrong. You can acquire both knowledge and skill in computing. Understanding is a prerequisite for both knowledge and skill, not something added on afterward. And no, computer science is absolutely not special in this regard; all disciplines require understanding (or as you put it, "really living your subject matter") to master.
    – JeffE
    Oct 26, 2014 at 18:06
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    @GraphicsResearch: You know, those "other fields" are quite a lot to make such a strong claim that you can be successful in every one of them without deep understanding (and is there any where you can be successful with shallow understanding?). I suspect you have quite a distorted view of the other fields, but pay attention that having a distorted view of a whole world can lead to a distorted view of your own world, that is, your field. It's not the first time I hear or read a claim like the one you made, but every time it was related to a different field: so? For the rest, I second JeffE.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Oct 26, 2014 at 18:42

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