For Students,  Tips

From marks to Marx: Shifting your mindset for learning

We all like to achieve and when it comes to doing a course or gaining a qualification we want to achieve the best result possible.

Naturally we want to get an A+ or a First Class Honour in whatever subject we study.  Striving to get a good mark – a Distinction, Merit or Commendation – is a useful approach to learning and for many people it is the driving force guiding their learning effort.

Doo Lough County Mayo
We all like to achieve in learning but what should we really aim for? (My picture of Doo Lough, County Mayo)

However, it is worthwhile to ask if it the ‘best’ approach?  Is there a better, more fruitful and, in the long-term more rewarding target to aim for?

I argue that there is and want to make a case for moving beyond a simple focus on marks and assessment to the more expansive idea of growing your mind through ideological critique and praxis.

If you are an active participant on a course you will likely have learning goals.  These are implicit and explicit statements of what you wish to achieve.  How you approach different topics and learning challenges, where you apply effort and how you measure progress are all parts of your learning strategy which in turn is guided by your goals.

It is useful to be aware of your learning goals and to be prepared to question and review them regularly. 

What do I want to achieve? 

This is the most important decision you can make about your own learning.  You could decide “I want to pass the exam” or even go further “I want to get an honours grade” or further again “I want first class honours”


you could go beyond grades and shift your goals toward an intrinsic interest in the subject and strive to master the topic in itself. 

You could also consider goals that relate to your own competence such as “I want to develop a new design for….” or “I want to investigate why…..” or “I wish to become very knowledgeable on…..”.  These goals are stated without reference to the formal assessment process.

Karl Marx in 1861

As an adult, you can go further again.  Here I quote from Karl Marx, the last line from Thesis on Feuerbach

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

The term ‘praxis’ is used to denote a process whereby theory, skills or knowledge are used to realise and enact the potential therein.  Through the writings of Paulo Friere we see how literacy education results in emancipation.  Lives can be transformed and the prevailing order challenged.  Imagine that as a learning goal “I want to change the world”. 

This is not some vague, idealistic notion that can be countered by the shallow challenge of “that’s all very well but I need to pass my exams”.  The most important goals in adult learning should be ideological critique and praxis.  Everyone who learns has a responsibility to contribute and improve our world. 

Students in our schools, colleges and universities are often well placed to use praxis as a purpose and means of learning.  For example, in National College of Ireland we have an elective module on Service Learning available to our business undergraduates.  However, many students fail to grasp the opportunity.   They see the purpose of college in narrow terms and focus on their next assessment and look for formulae to get good marks without much effort.

As educators we need to take responsibility for providing a limited view of learning.  Much of the assessment infrastructure is built around pre-defined learning outcomes and an instrumental view of what it means to achieve.  We need to question the system and challenge the underlying assumptions.  It’s time to critique the ideology of our education system – in short, to shift mindsets from marks to Marx.

Strangely enough, at a personal level if you move your learning mindset beyond the next assessment and adopt critique and praxis as your ultimate learning goals you will likely achieve high marks in all that you do.

One Comment

  • laurencegilsonoldcastle

    Couldn't agree more. It's the responsibility of learners and educators, as well as those responsible for planning, designing and building education systems to release the 'log jam' and enable the potential for liberation and emancipation. This is one of the aims of the Laurence Gilson Summer School ( – to provide that space where all involved in education in Ireland can push those boundaries into new and more creative systems and ideas.

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