Work quality—in academia or anywhere else—significantly improves when the individual or group responsible for it implements systematic quality-control measures before the piece is submitted for outside review. Although there is no universal recipe for producing the ideal in-class performance, paper, report, or presentation, it is possible to define a number of simple measures that will result in solid, quality work in any domain. What follows are simple, specific steps that can be taken to improve your in-class performance, papers, reports, classroom presentations and exams.

Read all stated directions and follow them scrupulously.
Your instructor expects you to follow scrupulously all guidelines and directions that have been given in writing or orally. If s/he bothered to spell them out, it is undoubtedly for a good reason, although the reason may not be immediately obvious to you. In most cases, the point of guidelines and directions is actually to help you produce better work. Not only is there no excuse for neglecting or ignoring them, but in doing so you make your own life harder, and—unnecessarily—increase your risk of getting a low grade.

• Consider all rules as absolute.
Deadlines, assignments, paper formatting, presentation parameters, etc. are not "suggested." Exceptions can be made, but they must be justified and remain, by definition, exceptional. Note: exceptional: "out of the ordinary course, unusual" (Oxford English Dictionary)

• Try to understand the meaning and greater purpose of coursework and assignments.
Do not work mechanically; think about what you are doing and why. By default, what you do in a college course should ultimately lead to your learning something (a fact, a procedure, a skill, a concept, etc.), and your engagement should have the same goal. Learning something is very different from passing a course, earning credits and getting an "A," which are not in and of themselves educational goals. It is true that a poorly designed class lets students get away with merely going "through the motions" and still getting a decent, and even good grade; on the other hand, a smartly designed class makes it impossible for students to do well without actually learning something. My courses fall in the second category: do not attempt to get away with merely going through the motions, it won't do you any good.

• Approach your work in a proactive manner.
Do not come to class expecting to "be taught" as if your role was essentially passive. You are the one learning, and learning is an active process. Before you start on any assignment, take a while to reflect on its dimensions beyond what you are required to do, strictly speaking. Attend to the spirit of the work required, rather than simply to its literal aspects. If you are asked to "read a text," for instance, ask yourself why this particular text was chosen, pay attention to its form and structure in addition to what it means, look up any items you do not fully understand. Take some notes, write a summary, a commentary. Formulate some questions that you'd want to ask the teacher; identify some points that could be exploited for class discussions—even if the teacher did not explicitly require that you do so.
Mediocre students regard the learning process as a treatment that the teacher applies to them as a physician would to a patient; they do what is asked of them, and nothing more; they only scratch the surface of the work required, without attempting to explore all of its possible dimensions, and they consider academic work as a foreign object foisted upon them, rather than as something that is—or can become—part of who they are. Don't be one of them!

• Let yourself be pushed (and push yourself) beyond your comfort zone.
Your comfort zone means intellectually and procedurally familiar territory, which does not require much mental energy, event though the content may seem new. For instance, if for you "studying a work of fiction" means summarizing the plot and outlining characters' motives, tackling a new text does not necessarily take you out of your comfort zone as long as you are only required to summarize the plot and outline characters' motives. Before long, the amount of learning involved by studying a new book decreases considerably. In order to develop further as a learner, you need not only to be confronted with different kinds of materials (for instance, texts without a plot that can be summarized, or in which the plot has very little importance), but also with different ways to make sense of these materials. A well-designed course will force you to venture out of your intellectual comfort zone, but you need to do so on your own as well.

• Expend whatever effort is needed.
Being a college student may be a challenging, sometimes difficult and time-consuming occupation. Then again, this is the very purpose of "higher education," and students must do whatever it takes to meet these educational challenges. While doing so may take more time and effort, than anticipated, only results matter: superior work is seldom achieved without a considerable expense of time and effort, but inferior work cannot be excused simply because much time and effort was expended in producing it—in college, unlike in grade school, you seldom get points just for trying.

• Prioritize education.
Socializing, playing sports, and various other activities (including jobs and internships) may well be part of the "college experience," but they must remain secondary pursuits at best. Participating in such activities is never a valid reason for missing class, not turning in assignments on time, or producing sub-standard work.

• Take responsibility.
Excuses are a dime a dozen in academe. Every semester, a teacher will hear the classics—"The file with my assignment was corrupted" (formerly "The dog ate my homework"), "My printer just ran out of ink," "I really know the material, but I don't do well on exams"—and probably a few new ones. In the vast majority of cases, excuses appear for what they really are: a front to hide a lack of planning, a lack of effort, a lack of sufficient commitment, in hopes of evading consequences. In other words, attempts to avoid taking responsibility.
Becoming a full-fledged adult involves taking responsibility. Ultimately you alone are accountable for your decisions. If you make mistakes, if you fail to apply yourself adequately, own up to your failings and learn a lesson rather than try to place the blame on someone or something else.
More specifically:
- You are responsible for gathering information about courses and programs; about rules and regulations; about schedules and deadlines. The onus is on you to keep track of this information, and to understand its meaning and implications—and, if you do not understand, to inform yourself further until you do.
- You are responsible for following guidelines and turning in work on time without being reminded by someone else.
- You are responsible for planning your schedule—your semester, your week, your day—so as to allocate the appropriate amount of time to each activity. When scheduling conflicts arise, immediately consult with the interested parties in order to solve them (a typical case being several assignments in different classes all due on the same day or in the same week) as early as possible.
- Never present a teacher with a fait accompli problematic situation, such as announcing that you could not complete a paper (for whatever reason) on the day it is due. Treat potential problems when there is still ample time to devise appropriate solutions (which of course requires adequate planning).

• When in doubt, ask your instructor...
A good instructor will provide the necessary amount of detail about each class, and whatever is not specified must be either obvious (papers must be printed out on 8x11' white paper, not written with finger paints on the back of cut-out shipping carton pieces) or left to your appreciation. Yet if something important does not seem perfectly clear, it is better to ask than to do something inappropriate because of unwarranted assumptions on your part.

• But ask wisely...
However, inquire only after having read closely the various documents available and paid attention to what gets said in class. Asking a question whose answer has already been given sends a strong message that you are not paying attention, or that you do not care, or that you are not too bright. Use common sense, too: even if the syllabus in a French class does not state that papers must be written in French, it can be reasonably assumed that this is the case.

• Follow a multi-step process in your work
Writing. When composing a paper, it is far from enough to have written a draft by hand, made some corrections and typed it up. Start by writing some notes, then an outline. Flesh out the outline into a first draft. Read over the draft for internal coherence and balance; make adjustments if necessary. Go back to each sentence to systematically check for “inexcusable errors.” Consolidate sentences into more complex units and check for repetitions and intra-sentence coherence; read over this entire draft and make adjustments if necessary. When you type or print out your paper, read it over at least once for content, once for form, and once to proofread for mechanical errors.
Preparing a reading. Read the piece once to get the gist, and note items to be looked up. Look up unknown or uncertain words or phrases, including names and facts or notions that are not entirely clear. Verify that the meaning you have found for each item actually makes sense in the context where it appears. Read the whole text again to verify that it all makes (better) sense; make a note of questions you might want to ask your instructor in order to clarify its meaning further. Jot down some of the most important points to be retained, perhaps in the form of a summary including key vocabulary.

• Devise a strategy for systematically eliminating all potential “inexcusable" errors and mistakes, i.e. those which can be cleared up with the proper discipline, attention and tools.
Examples: inadequate formatting (margins, line spacing) - inaccurate spelling, including accents and diacritical marks - in French, incorrect gender/number agreements - use of non-existent words - misuse of existent words - incorrect use of prepositions, of transitive constructions - incorrect morphology (conjugations, plurals) - use of tautological phrases and vague words - semantic incongruence.

• Use all the tools at your disposal, and learn about others with which you are not familiar.
You now have access to dictionaries, encyclopedias, periodicals, about 1.5 million books and dozens of databases in the library, the Web… Use them!

• Never leave anything doubtful unchecked.
Having vaguely heard about something does not mean you know it. Can you define it? Describe it? Give an example of it? Link it to other information? If you don’t, go find out!

• Understand how grading works
Students often hold incorrect assumptions about grades and grading:
- The customary letter scale (A-B-C-D-F with its pluses and minuses) is not always an exact equivalent of a numerical scale from 0 to 100%. Such a scale works well for tests including discrete items (such as multiple-choice questionnaires), but very poorly for essays or tests on material that is not just factual; in such cases, a grade reflects the quality of the work (usually broken down in several components, such as structure, content and form)—from "excellent" down to "poor"—rather than the quantity of (in)correct items. Be that as it may, grades in the social sciences, the humanities and the arts are not are not any more "subjective" than in other disciplines, and therefore not negotiable or arguable.
- Grading does not work like scoring in sports such as ice skating or horse jumping, where each contender starts out with a perfect figure (5 or 10) from which deductions are taken by the judges when mistakes are made. In academe, this model does not apply on two counts: a piece of work free of errors and mistakes is not necessarily good enough to deserve an "A," and points are not deducted from 100, but added up from zero. A grade is not given by default, just by showing up, sitting for an exam or turning in a paper: you must work your way up, even only to a "C".
- A grade does not reflect a general judgment of your character, abilities, and motivation. Grades are given to a piece of work, such as a paper or an exam, or a performance, such as an oral presentation. Grades are not given to a student as a person; therefore, there are no "A students" or "C students"—there is only excellent work that deserves an "A," or passable but undistinguished work that deserves a "C".
- Note that you do not "deserve" a good grade simply because...

... You showed up and were attentive (that's a basic expectation)
... You "tried really hard" (only results count)
... You have always received good grades (you are being graded on what you are able to do now)
... You need to maintain your 4.0 GPA, keep your scholarship, get into Med school, etc. (what you need and what you deserve are not causally related)
... You "feel" that you should have gotten a good grade (if there is no evidence to support it)"

C stands for "acceptable," which means that the work meets all or most of the basic guidelines for the assignment (length, relevance, etc.) and does not contain major errors or mistakes, but shows no particular distinction.

B stands for "good," which means that the work meets all the basic requirements and exceeds some of them, with few errors or mistakes. A work in the "B" range may include aspects that are outstanding, while others are merely adequate or even rather poor.

A stands for "excellent," which means that the work exceeds all basic requirements, with no significant errors or mistakes. To be in the "A" range, all aspects of the work must be outstanding.

D stands for "poor," which means that the work fails to meet some of the basic criteria, with significant errors and mistakes that seriously compromise its integrity.

F stands for "failing," which means that the work fails to meet a majority of the basic criteria, with unredeemable errors that fundamentally compromise its integrity.