What Are Successful Students Doing Well?
Why do some very bright children fail to be successful students? Obviously, a good brain alone is not enough to achieve academic success. By academic success, we don’t just mean achieving good scores, we mean developing a love of learning and a hunger to grow academically.
To follow are ten characteristics of successful students. Success is highly nuanced, so it is not an exhaustive list, however, it is a very good start.
1. They have a growth mindset
A growth mindset is a deeply held belief that a person can learn anything given enough time and effort. Carol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She is the world’s most recognised student of the mindset trait. In her 2014 Ted talk, she spoke about growth mindset in terms of, ‘The power of yet’. When your child says, “I can’t do this”, then you need to add, “Yet. I can’t do this yet”.
Dweck’s research shows that even explaining this concept to a child will affect the way they view their learning. She points to evidence that says, an understanding of growth mindset changes neural pathways that allow for greater growth in learning.
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. This is the belief that we are born with fixed abilities and these will limit our potential.
2. They are brave
Brave kids are going to be the ones who take risks and have lots of experiences. They can use those experiences powerfully in their learning and growing. They quickly establish what they love and loathe and then they are more likely to create a life they love. They are also going to be the students who take learning risks that lead to lateral, out-of-the-box thinking. The world needs that kind of thinker.
Bravery is about taking on daunting challenges; feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Bravery is not the absence of fear. Sometimes when we talk to our kids we say, “Don’t be afraid” or “Don’t be silly, it’s going to be fine”. This implies that fear is something to be ashamed of. It isn’t. Fear is human and to be expected, but it also needs to be overcome. That won’t just happen by magic. It comes with modelling, teaching, and explaining.
3. They are organised
A high school student can study as many as nine different subjects with nine different teachers and nine different sets of expectations. It is impossible to thrive under those circumstances unless a child is highly organised. Fortunately, organisation is something we can teach. We can also employ aids like diaries, planners, and study schedules.
4. They are consistent and persistent
Learning happens slowly and consistently. Take for example the process we went through when we learned to read. There were steps, from holding a book the right way up, to recognising letters to phonetics, years of practising, and finally fluency. It’s not actually that hard to learn to read, but you do have to develop building blocks and commit to regular practise. It is the willingness to practise that contributes to success as a student.
Consistency is becoming less common in adolescents. Some of the areas most affected by teens’ lack of consistency are mathematics, music, and languages. In each of these areas, there needs to be a mastery of some basic skills that only comes with practise.
5. They can deal with failure
Failure is one of the greatest tools in the learning process. Unfortunately, too many people are simply overwhelmed by the feeling of failure rather than being able to stand back and look at the lessons it can teach us. Having the tenacity to stare down failure is an extraordinary skill and it goes hand in hand with grit. Both can be taught.
Teach kids to look at failure in an analytical way. What is the size and gravity of the failure? What are its consequences? What can be learned from the experience?
6. They set goals
Goal setting focuses a student’s attention towards certain behaviours and information and away from distractions. Research tells us that incremental goals are far more effective than large goals. If a student is able to break down a big goal into small bite-sized pieces they are more likely to be successful. This would be the case in solving a complex problem or achieving a higher grade. If they can incorporate the feedback they receive at each stage, the small wins eventually lead to big achievements.
7. They connect learning to life
A successful student is able to see their studies in the context of the wider world. If a child has read, observed, and discussed the world, issues, and ideas on a regular basis, they will be able to place their learning in context. Without context, it is easy to understand why a child would think, “What’s the point?”
It is up to parents to ensure children are exposed to a multitude of ideas and rich resources and experiences. It is up to teachers to ensure that what happens in the classroom is linked to what exists in the wider world. That sense of relevance is vital for developing in kids a love of learning. It gives school relevance beyond just doing well in testing.
8. They have a positive approach to mental health
One of the greatest obstacles to a child’s academic success can be their mental health. Anxiety, in particular, is a growing concern in Australian schools. A large-scale study, conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found that nearly half of Australian students reported feeling “very stressed” in 2018, up from 28% in 2003. Students who reported feeling confident while doing difficult schoolwork fell from 76% in 2003 to 59% in 2018.
It is very difficult to learn when in a state of stress. If a child hasn’t been taught the emotional regulation skills required to create calm and a sense of flow, it is very hard to achieve success.
9. They collaborate with teachers and peers
A child’s relationship with their teacher is fundamental to their success at school. Effective students recognise that their teachers are their allies. The importance of this relationship was borne out in the ground-breaking research of Professor John Hattie.
We tend to see this relationship as being completely in the hands of the teacher. That isn’t the case. Effective learners contribute to the creation of this strong relationship. They recognise their teachers as valuable resources whom they need to work with in partnership. These students are easy to recognise, they participate in class, they stay after class and ask extra questions, and they make appointments with their teachers to get help if they need it.
Successful students also tend to work well with peers, whether it be in-class group work, study clubs, or peer teaching. Collaboration is central to their learning schema.
10. They value education
Finally, if a child is to achieve success in education, they need to value education. In life, we very rarely persist or strive in an endeavour if we don’t think it is valuable. Studies show that children are more likely to embrace education and succeed in homes where education is valued, where there are books, and where parents themselves are engaged in learning.