Secrets Of The Most Successful College Students

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College admission letters go out this month, and most recipients (and their parents) will place great importance on which universities said yes and which said no.

A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that the most significant thing about college is not where you go, but what you do once you get there. Historian and educator Ken Bain has written a book on this subject, What The Best College Students Do, that draws a roadmap for how students can get the most out of college, no matter where they go.

As Bain details, there are three types of learners — surface, who do as little as possible to get by; strategic, who aim for top grades rather than true understanding, and finally, deep learners, who leave college with a real, rich education.

Bain then introduces us to a host of real-life deep learners: young and old, scientific and artistic, famous or still getting there. Although they each have their own insights, Bain identifies common patterns in their stories:

Pursue passion, not A’s. When he was in college, says the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, he was “moved by curiosity, interest, and fascination, not by making the highest scores on a test.” As an adult, he points out, “no one ever asks you what your grades were. Grades become irrelevant.” In his experience as a student and a professor, says Tyson, “ambition and innovation trump grades every time.”

Get comfortable with failure. When he was still a college student, comedian Stephen Colbert began working with an improvisational theater in Chicago. “That really opened me up in ways I hadn’t expected,” he told Bain. “You must be OK with bombing. You have to love it.” Colbert adds, “Improvisation is a great educator when it comes to failing. There’s no way you are going to get it right every time.”

Make a personal connection to your studies. In her sophomore year in college, Eliza Noh, now a professor of Asian American studies at California State University-Fullerton, took a class on power in society: who has it, how it’s used. “It really opened my eyes. For the first time in my life, I realized that learning could be about me and my interests, about who I was,” Noh told Bain. “I didn’t just listen to lectures, but began to use my own experiences as a jumping off point for asking questions and wanting to pursue certain concepts.”

Read and think actively. Dean Baker, one of the few economists to predict the economic collapse of 2008, became fascinated in college by the way economic forces shape people’s lives. His studies led him to reflect on “what he believed and why, integrating and questioning,” Bain notes. Baker himself says: ”I was always looking for arguments in something I read, and then pinpointing the evidence to see how it was used.”

Ask big questions. Jeff Hawkins, an engineer who created the first mobile computing device, organized his college studies around four profound questions he wanted to explore: Why does anything exist? Given that a universe does exist, why do we have the particular laws of physics that we do? Why do we have life, and what is its nature? And given that life exists, what’s the nature of intelligence? For many of the subjects he pursued, Bain notes, “there was no place to ‘look it up,’ no simple answer.”

Cultivate empathy for others. Reyna Grande, author of the novels Across A Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies, started writing seriously in her junior year in college. “Writing fiction taught Reyna to empathize with the people who populated her stories, an ability that she transferred to her life,” Bain notes: “As a writer, I have to understand what motivates a character, and I see other people as characters in the story of life,” Grande says. “When someone makes mistakes, I always look at what made them act the way they do.”

Set goals and make them real. Tia Fuller, who later became an accomplished saxophone player, began planning her future in college, envisioning the successful completion of her projects. ”I would keep focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, and what that accomplishment would mean,” she said to Bain. “That would help me develop a crystalized vision.”

Find a way to contribute. Joel Feinman, now a lawyer who provides legal services to the poor, was set on his career path by a book he read in college: The Massacre at El Mazote, an account of a 1981 slaughter of villagers in El Salvador. After writing and staging a campus play about the massacre, and traveling to El Savador himself, Feinman “decided that I wanted to do something to help people and bring a little justice to the world.”



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4 Responses to “Secrets Of The Most Successful College Students”

  1. EssaySnark says:

    When admissions directors of top graduate business schools evaluate candidates for admission to their MBA programs, they are essentially using the same yardstick as stated here: “the most significant thing about college is not where you go, but what you do once you get there.” Everything in this article illustrates the reasons behind this so clearly. Taking any of these attitudes during college means that the student is an achiever, that she’s curious about the world around her, that she’s internally motivated and willing to work hard. The MBA admissions people value those characteristics highly. Seeing a track record from college that shows this type of engagement, risk-taking, and work ethic is appealing. It says something about who you are.

    At the same time, many top bschools are accused of elitism since so many of their students tend to come from similar top schools; Harvard likes to admit Yale and Penn alum, etc. This would seem to indicate that it does, in fact, matter “where” you went to school. But this is mostly because of what it signals: Someone who graduated from a great college had to have done something spectacular in high school that got them into that college in the first place. So it’s another input that points to the person being an overachiever.

    So the real question is, are the students who take these proactive, broad-minded approaches to school and learning taught to do that? Where do these attitudes come from? It seems like much of this points to students having a level of maturity beyond what the typical college kid may possess. Most K-12 educational systems today don’t impart the value of learning for learning’s sake. Probably unanswerable, but curious where the people given as the examples above acquired it.

  2. Jessica says:

    I would agree that most of college is wasted on students not ready for the academic rigor, if that rigor has not been dwindled to meet the lower abilities of entering students. Most students also do not possess the necessary curiosity to delve into the subjects with the personal interest required to be a deep learner. I would also agree that this is related to the fact that not enough emphasis is placed on learning for learning’s sake in K-12.

    I have a Masters in Secondary Education, Social Science and one thing that was made very clear during my time at USC was that teachers must possess a deep knowledge of the content they teach to be able to facilitate learning events, in which the students, through a process of discovery, uncover the ways in which to find information and then reveal important questions and answers. Without the depth of content knowledge, a teacher will not have the ability to create such a system of discovery because their ability to manipulate subjects into learning events is tied to their intricate understanding of those subjects. Therefore, while I do not knock teachers, I do question the lack of emphasis placed on content area proficiency of teachers versus pedagogical education. Teachers need proficiency in both areas to be truly effective in the classroom and inspire the curiosity needed for deep learning; it also demonstrates deep learning on their part!

    Teachers with a deep understanding of both areas would be able to model their classrooms on society and what being a part of it requires – which would be multitiered education. For example, teachers could organize classrooms democratically to cultivate student belief in their power and ownership of education as well as their personal and public situations. Another result of deep understanding of education and content would be teachers could use student ‘research teams’ who alternate teaching their fellow classmates on assigned subjects. Teachers would gradually build student skills through this process improving research skills, communication and presentation skills, teamwork, information literacy, and capitalize on the social nature of student learning, which also equates to ownership in the process. With a deep understanding of content, a teacher can drive and aid in the process of discovery and ensure that the key elements of the subject and the ‘big ideas’ are uncovered.

    Questions I have for schools: Why are teachers moved from English to History to Science, etc.???? There can’t possibly be depth of content in all of these subjects for one teacher; I do not accept that lower grades merit a lesser understanding of content knowledge by teachers. And why, instead of creating democratically organized classrooms, in which students can experientially understand democracy and government systems, do we insist on teaching middle and high school students about the intricate histories of Greece, Rome, the US, etc? What we’re really trying to convey are bigger themes throughout history of how people, places, time, etc. interact to create change and how we can predict outcomes for the future by understanding these interactions and learning how to reveal them. Spice it up! Find interesting subjects for students and then use content and pedagogical knowledge to create diverse learning events in which the students can grasp the concepts and universally apply them. I believe this is how deeper learning can be cultivated for the many rather than the few.

    I must also say, I agree with the author’s post about how information should be presented. However, I find that an idea persists within many schools that only gifted students deserve and can handle these kind of novel opportunities to learn ‘experientially’ and with such diversified measures. This is a supreme disservice to the rest of students and society at large and results in a culture of superficial learning, where the students learn to memorize and get by – because the information is rarely presented in ways that they can own their learning and that cultivates their curiosity.

    Finally, the whole system seems backwards! Without deep content knowledge of teachers, we get greater focus on the unimportant and mundane elements of subject matter and bored students, who are sometimes become terminally disengaged and uncurious, i.e. superficial learners. Instead of greater content for students, we need MORE CONTENT FOR TEACHERS in addition to an educational background – students need the ability to find and evaluate information, analyze themes and trends and apply them across genres and universally, and then effectively communicate their findings. Teachers must know the subject matter inside and out to effectively organize and manipulate it for their students – but in order to get this as well, the subject of pay must also be considered. Alas, that is topic for another time. First, we must get serious about how important we think K-12 education truly is.

  3. Interesting article … that left me reflecting how kids are largely left to discover this on their own; that these practices and dispositions are rarely emphasized or modelled in K-12 schooling but always of lower priority than grades. In other words lip service.
    My daughter is presently at university and these practices and dispositions are nowhere on her syllabus. If kids were more exposed and encouraged to orient to these practices and dispositions … well, we would likely have far more satisfied, balanced and healthier young adults than presently the case. More knowledgeable, too, I’d wager.
    And I would add that, as a career educator, I’ve always tried to introduce most of these practices – sometimes overtly, with incentives, to students, and I know they have valued them.
    Michael Maser (michaelmaser.net)

  4. Steve Rowe says:

    This article provided some interesting insights into the ways in which ‘switched-on’ learners discover the value of learning for learning’s sake. That they all reflect on the passion they developed for their respective areas of interest is an important key for educators. Learners who are exposed to a broad range of learning experiences and and a broad range of disciplines are much more likely to develop their passions. It is unfortunate that standardised testing and getting “A” grades seem to be the main motivators of education entities and students, respectively. It seems clear that it is up to us (educators and parents alike) to support a shift in focus from producing straight A students in a high performing institutions to a focus on deep learners who are curious about many things and gradually find their passion.
    Steve Rowe

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