Secrets of Successful Students

Richard J. Light, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, conducted a ten-year study, interviewing over 1,600 successful Harvard students, and tracking their answers to a very important question, “Did I really get what I came here for?” His findings were published in his book, Making the Most of College, Students Speak their Minds.

Surprisingly, many of these successful students had their most “important and memorable academic learning…outside of classes.” Whether it was among other students in the dormitories, or in some extracurricular activities, such as orchestra or art, 80% of the students, a large majority, cited a critical incident that occurred outside the classroom ‘changed them profoundly.’ I can attest that, when I attended Yale, some of the most interesting and thought-provoking experiences I had, occurred during late night conversations about everything from sophistry to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Other students strongly influence the quality of the educational experience; they’re also far more likely to challenge and wrestle, outside the classroom framework, with concepts and beliefs that, to certain professors and classes, might be considered unassailable.

Many of these successful students also preferred highly structured classes with quizzes, papers, and assignments scattered throughout. These students preferred to get ‘quick feedback’ from the professor. This makes quite a bit of sense, especially if a student is attending a school that is on the quarter system, such as the University of California; if you goof up on a mid-term, you have virtually no recovery time before the final. It’s better to have a series of quizzes and homework to measure progress, than to discover, in the 11th hour, that there are gaping holes in comprehension. Light also notes (p. 8), “…students are frustrated and disappointed with classes that require only a final paper. How can we ever improve our work, they ask, when the only feedback comes after a course is over, and when no revision is invited?”

Another surprise was that these students preferred doing their homework assignments in study groups. In my day, a while ago admittedly, studying alone was the rule, and collaborating in groups was perceived as cheating. This appears no longer to be the case, and for good reason. The notion of cooperative study groups was validated by a study performed by Professor Uri Treisman, formerly of UC Berkeley. He observed the most successful calculus students at Berkeley and noted they spent about the same amount of time studying as the less successful students, but with one major difference: the successful students came together in groups to learn from each other when they had gotten as far as they could individually. Group study is a distinct advantage to performance.

Another morsel of successful student sage advice is that it’s important to allocate time to participate in activities that include a faculty member. This could be pursuing research on a topic of mutual interest, thereby gaining greater academic depth and scope. The importance of nurturing a relationship with at least one faculty member each semester cannot be overstated. This connects the student to the university and supplies the student with ready recommendations for the future.

Lastly, the vast majority of these successful students valued building strong writing skills. They sought out courses with weekly writing assignments and rigorous essay requirements. Improving writing is extremely important because so much evolves around effective writing, including gaining admission to graduate schools, accessing research grants, or securing jobs.

This, of course, isn’t a comprehensive recitation of all Professor Light’s findings. Should this sample inspire you to buy a copy of his book, or take it out of the local library, the column has done its job. The findings I’ve noted, however, are the ones I found compelling and warranting your attention. If, as you become an undergraduate, you implement them into your efforts to assure maximum benefit from your college years, great. They’re tried and true.