What Really Makes a Successful Student?

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pencil sharpener

Stay thirsty, my friends

What makes a successful student (in the sense of a person who passes his or her classes and potentially goes on to graduate)?

I began thinking about this after reading “The Neuroscience of Effort,” Jonah Lehrer’s recent post in the Wired Science Blog The Frontal Cortex. The piece discusses a new study of our brains’ inner workings as they struggle to stay focused on tasks and avoid distraction and procrastination. This eternal struggle surely has applied at some time or another to every student; and since college students have a heavy learning workload, this particular brain-victory seems vital to collegiate success.

While experts explore the brain’s inner workings, we know that success, too, can only begin with a striking word in this article’s title: “effort.” Maybe it’s obvious that one must expend effort to achieve, but I believe the capacity for hard work is a trait many incoming college students underestimate. In many cases, students will need to work more strenuously than was ever required before, academically. At the community college, I’ve seen many bright students who simply don’t apply their potential to their studies. Of course, some deliberately decide college doesn’t suit them, and they may find success elsewhere. For those who stick around, though, I’ve observed a few shared traits among the successful:

-solid work ethic (they’re willing to put in time and effort; also, they’re responsible individuals)
resilience (they don’t crumble in the face of an obstacle, such as a poor grade or a personal setback)
perseverance (related to resilience: they’ve made their minds up to finish what they need to finish, and they do)
self-discipline (along with work ethic, they also have self-restraint, the ability to think before an immediate and emotional reaction to a situation)

In short, if you wish to thrive in college, work hard and don’t give up, be tough, and be in control of yourself. Incidentally, these traits are also much-needed in the workplace; and they’ll go a long way in personal relationships as well.

What other traits contribute to student success? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Related posts:
“Why Struggling in Class Can Be Good”
“College as Rude Awakening?”
“Jump in There and Make Mistakes!”

Image via mrg.bz / wallyir

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Daydream Believers Reap Benefits

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Cloud whisps

Wandering Aimlessly? (Image by turtlemom4bacon via Flickr)

I’ve had the good fortune to know a number of talented creative professionals (such as professors, artists, graphic designers, and writers), and we’ve discussed how our best ideas seem to materialize when we’re absentmindedly strolling in the park or taking a shower. In other words, we’ve noticed that we’ve often had these little flashes of insight when we’re not trying to think about anything in particular.

Jonah Lehrer’s recent article “The Importance of Mind-Wandering,” published in Wired Science Blog The Frontal Cortex, discusses this idea. First, note our natural mental tendency is to daydream; in fact, according to a recent psychological study cited in the article, our mind is wandering almost half of our waking hours! So, fellow learners, now that you know it’s not just you whose mind drifts, read on to put yourself in a position to reap from your wanderings, and to observe some general advice concerning daydreams, boredom, focus, and creativity.

1. Yes, you do need to focus at certain times. I don’t think this article or related studies are meant to convey that it’s always appropriate to “space.” You realize you should be fully attentive when you’re using knives in the kitchen, for instance, and during occasions such as classroom lectures or business meetings. If someone is imparting information you need to know, of course, common sense dictates that you need to focus then.

2. This could be tough, given what I understand of media addiction in young people: don’t feel the urge to fill your “empty” moments immediately with something like texting. It’s okay to be bored, and such boredom can actually lead to great insight and creativity . . .

3. . . . That is, if you become conscious of the insight. Lehrer notes “letting the mind drift off is the easy part,” but it’s important to reap the benefits of mind-wandering by being aware enough to recognize the insights you’ve had.

In fact, if you take a creative writing class, you’re likely to be encouraged to keep a small notebook for those random moments when inspiration strikes. A creative person is constantly attuned to the little things in everyday life that some may tend to overlook; but those who successfully receive a flash of inspiration and do something productive with it are those who are aware of, and able to capture, that inspiration.

Jump in There and Make Mistakes!

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erase boardStudents: what is your attitude toward failure? How do you react when you make mistakes? Recent psychological research indicates the answers to these questions are far more important than you may have imagined.

Published Tuesday in Wired Science Blog The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer’s “Why Do Some People Learn Faster?” discusses the brain science behind our reactions to our own mistakes.

The new study heralded in the article explores how one’s belief about learning affects one’s performance: people who are open to making mistakes and understand that mistakes are part of the learning process end up performing better. The study, to be published in Psychological Science, was led by Jason Moser of Michigan State and builds on other research in the field, notably Carol Dweck’s of Stanford.

Reading about Dweck’s research in the article, you’ll also discover why it is not such a good idea to tell bright children how bright they are (this actually impedes kids’ growth).

Exciting material for all who yearn to learn (and teach)!

Image via mrg.bz / jdurham

Note-taking, Part II: PowerPoint & A View from Japan

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Welcome to Powerpoint on PowerPoint

Image via Wikipedia - Flickr / garethjmsaunders

Saturday, I posted some links to sites on note-taking skills.  Today, I’d like to comment on note-taking in juxtaposition to that “learning object” so omnipresent in schools and businesses alike: PowerPoint slideshows.

Now, I’ve used PowerPoint many times over the years, though relatively occasionally in the classroom. It’s good for professional presentations while speaking in front of an audience, as long as the presenter remembers to use the slides judiciously. But the danger of PowerPoint in a learning environment is that it can encourage passive, rather than active, learning. It can cheapen communication and turn everything into a sales pitch,” as was noted in the Wired article “PowerPoint is Evil: Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely.”

That article was published in 2003. Flash forward eight years to an article published just days ago in the Japan Times Online, “Advantage of taking notes.” The writer is Takamitsu Sawa, President of Shiga University in Japan, and he claims that note-taking is an indispensable professional skill that college students must learn.

He also discusses PowerPoint. Notable quote (emphases mine):
 “PowerPoint deprives teachers of the motivation to improve their teaching skills, and students of the opportunity to learn how to take notes. Students in the past learned well what was taught because they had to take notes. Today’s students are not helped by the large number of papers shown via PowerPoint in rapid succession.”

I’m not claiming here that PowerPoint = categorically evil and your own notes = universally virtuous; but I am claiming that students need to become actively engaged with their learning material in order to study effectively.  It is true that taking notes is active, while it’s easy to sit back and drift off mentally in the presence of PowerPoint.

. . . which brings me back, once again, to the importance of being trained to take good notes.

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