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What makes students successful?
  • Calendar Dec 20, 2019
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments

We’ve all had teachers whom we could tell were subject matter experts, but couldn’t communicate well, or frankly didn’t care about teaching.

Our instructors are much more than just subject matter experts (those are never in short supply, especially being so near to a world class university in UCSD!) Our instructors are mentors and partners to our students. They are people who know not just math, chemistry, or history, but about how to succeed in school, and how to communicate and inspire that in their students.

When I interview potential instructors, I ask them two questions to get a sense of how self-aware they are about their own success as students. 
The questions are:

  1. What makes/made you a successful student?
  2. What are unsuccessful, but earnest, students doing/not doing that is leading to their lack of success in school?

Someone who gets a perfect score on the SAT isn’t going to be able to help another student do the same unless they understand HOW they got that score. And an instructor that doesn’t understand why students succeed is not going to be able to help other students succeed.

Because some of these answers, I think, will be surprising to our students, I wanted to share them. So here are some of the common threads I’ve seen in the answers to these questions:

Successful students know how and aren’t ashamed to go out and find answers/get help.

Successful students aren’t successful just because they are brilliant and always know the answers. Successful students get confused and stumped too! The difference is that the most successful students don’t hesitate in employing a number of strategies to get the answers they need, and they don’t wait to get those answers. They know that “I don’t know” is the start of a process of exploration.

This is a value that we want to transmit to our students. No matter how brilliant you son/daughter might think their instructor is, there are going to be times where the instructor “doesn’t know the answer”. How the instructor handles that moment can be a more important lesson than the math/chemistry/English that the session is ostensibly about. It can be an eye opening experience for a student to see a person, whom they look at as a brilliant expert, to say, without worry or embarrassment, “Hmm, yknow, I don’t know. Let’s look it up online/see if we can figure it out from your textbook/ask another instructor for help.” Seeing an expert  unconcerned by “I don’t know”, but moving quickly to action, to success, can be an eye-opener for students, who, in my experience, think that “smart people just ‘get it’”.

On the other hand, the stories our instructors tell me in their interviews about “big mistakes they’ve learned from” often revolve around not asking questions or for help, or asking for help too late in the process.

This also includes regular communication with teachers (not sitting on or ignoring problems, but seeking out the help and advice of teachers right away

Successful students act as though they have control, and focus on aspects that they have control over

What has worked in the past won’t always work in the future. One year you have a teacher who posts lecture notes online; the next year you have a teacher who tests completely off notes and doesn’t post them online. One teacher tests problems straight out of the homework; another teacher asks questions much more challenging than homework problems. One allows a page of notes; another doesn’t. The point is that when a successful student is struggling, they ask “what is not working right now, and what do I need to change in my process?” This can certainly involve getting advice from a teacher, but it usually involves looking over tests to find out what questions are missed and why they were missed. The “why” is a two part question:

-What could I have done differently, at the moment that I was looking at this question?

This is a question about test taking strategy, problem solving, discipline, creativity, etc. Using what you knew at the time, was there something that you could have done differently to get the question correct.

-What could I have done differently in the course of my test preparation so that when I looked at this question, I had the information and skill needed to get this question correct?

This is a question about test preparation. Why didn’t the student know what they needed to know for this question. Did the student not know it would be on the test? Why not? Did the student believe that he understood the concept, but didn’t? Why? Did the student know they didn’t know the concept? Why didn’t the student get help sooner?

What successful students DON’T do is tell themselves stories about:

-I’m bad at this subject

-This teacher is terrible

-I’m too far behind

-This class is too boring


Now, set aside whether any of these statements are or are not true. If the goal is to succeed in the class, are they helpful beliefs? 

Successful students look beyond what they don’t have control of, and focus on what they do have control of:

-How can I get better at this subject?

-How can I succeed despite a less-than-ideal teacher?

-How can I get caught up?

-How can I get interested in this class? How can I succeed despite not being interested in this class?

Successful students believe that the challenges they are facing are surmountable.

Successful students don’t react; they plan

If a student feels like school is little more than moving from crisis to crisis, they are going to feel like they have very little control. It’s very common that we get calls from parents who have a panicked student who has a test tomorrow for which they are not prepared. They take the test, they do poorly, and they tell themselves a story about how hard the class is, how terrible they are at the class, how unfair the test is, and so on.

My question: why did it take until the day before the test for the student to realize there is a problem?

The answer: The student didn’t have a study plan for their test that started they day before the unit began and lasted until the day of the test.

Students believe that if they go to class, do the reading, and do the assigned homework, they will get a good grade. Successful students know that success, in anything, means planning for success, not assuming that it will come.

Planning to succeed on a test (and therefore in a class) involves:

-Analysis of previous test/test preparation

-Previewing the new unit

-Active studying/note-taking daily

-Using homework to find weaknesses

-Creating/taking practice exams

These are not all things that a teacher will assign. These things can’t all be done 1, 2, or 3 days before the test. By then, it’s often too late. Whereas if a student discovers that he doesn’t understand a concept a week and a half before the test, and does something about it then, there is plenty of time to learn, practice, review, and master the concept before test day.

Success on a test requires a plan. A student who is waiting for the teacher to tell them to take action is goint to always be playing catch-up.

What other things do successful students do, in your experience?


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