What Makes a Great Student

Last week, I wrote about what makes a great teacher.  This week, prompted largely by a couple of essays by Ann Patchett (in her great book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), I want to think about what makes a great student.  The one aspect of students’ lives I am sure I will not talk about it is grades, as that has no bearing on whether or not a student is great.  I had a great student who was a regular C and D student, as she exemplified what I’m going to talk about.  Not surprisingly, many of them do make As, but that’s not their goal or motivation.

First, they are active learners.  I don’t mean that term in the way that education folks use it today, as some sort of catch phrase for something we professors do in class.  Instead, I mean that they are actively engaged in their educational process.  In class, that means that are fully involved in whatever is going on, whether that’s a PowerPoint lecture being read to them or a class discussion.  Outside of class, they’re looking for more information or different viewpoints on the subject to broaden their view of whatever the subject is.  Here’s what Patchett writes in “Fact vs. Fiction”:

“There are two kinds of educational experience you can have in college. One is passive and one is active. In the first, you are a little bird in the nest with your beak stretched open wide, and the professor gathers up all the information you need and drops it down your gullet. You may feel good about this—after all, you are passionately waiting for this information—but your only role is to accept what you are given. To memorize facts and later repeat the for a test might get you a good grade, but it’s not the same thing as having intellectual curiosity. In the second kind, you are taught to learn how to find the information, and how to think about it, for yourself. You learn how to find the information, and how to think about it, for yourself. You learn how to question and to engage. You realize that one answer is not enough and that you have to look at as many sources as are available to you so that you can piece together a larger picture.”

That leads me to my second point; great students are intellectually curious.  This is related to being an active learner, but it goes beyond it in that it might have nothing to do with class.  These students are always reading or exploring something that has nothing to do with their classes.  Perhaps they’re biology majors who also love reading poetry or poetry students who practice tae kwan do or art majors who read philosophy.  Whenever I teach creative writing classes, I point out how often the writers have some separate interest like this and show students how it informs their writing.  I want them to see that they need to go beyond class if they want to grow as people, which is how one grows as a writer.

Next, they need and want to contribute to the conversation of the discipline or subject.  This sounds, again, like active learning, but it is quite different.  When students make comments in class or write their papers, they often simply want to show how much they know.  Those students are definitely engaged in class, and they are actively participating  However, great students want to enter into a conversation, not dominate it.  They ask questions because they are curious, not because they want to show off what they know (professors often do the same thing at conferences, by the way).  They make comments that further discussion, not shut it down.  These students know that they are learning from others around them, and they hope to provide ideas to further everyone’s learning.

Last, undergirding all of these ideas is humility.  I have seen students learn without being humble, but it is much more difficult.  More often, I have seen arrogance prevent students from any real learning.  Great students know how and when to admit that they’re wrong, that they’re view of the subject or world is flawed.  They can then adjust and hear someone else’s viewpoint, take it and change it in whatever way they need to, then make it their own.  They know that the subject matter and the world are wide and they are just one person trying to understand; they know that thousands of people have come before them and will come after them in the conversation of whatever subject they are interested in.

So, why does all of this matter for professors?  We not only need to find ways to teach students to be this way, we need to model it.  We need to come to our subjects with curiosity and passion, even after we’ve dealt with the same ideas for two and three decades.  We need to enter into a conversation with students, listening for what they have to say about the subject.  We need to be humble and remember that, while we know a great deal about our subject, we don’t know everything, not by a long shot.

Students need to see us living out these ideas, which is how they’ll begin to see and believe that such an approach is the right one for their discipline.  It will also make classes much more enjoyable, I would bet, and that’s never a bad thing.


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