Commentary by Will Sites
A few weeks ago I attended a holiday party in my hometown, a rural east-central Missouri community of about 7,000. Some of the attendees were old friends, many were acquaintances, and others complete strangers. But nearly all of them were connecting me to my former role as a local newspaper owner, which usually leads to some lively storytelling and maybe even a little friction. But on this night, my social engagement quickly centered on my role in higher education.
“So, Will, I hear you won some kind of teaching award,” said a former neighbor who was infamously disruptive throughout the halls of my high school. That was the wind-up. “What makes you so good?” That was the pitch. I didn’t have the answer he wanted. Although I could have fired-off some bullet-points, I didn’t feel the need to. Instead, I sought enlightenment from the inquisitive fellow.
The real question, I said, is “What makes a good student?”
“You tell me,” he said. It’s a great topic, but not an easy one. I don’t view my students from an academic ivory tower. I don’t have one – don’t want one. I prefer the trenches. I try to learn as much from my students as they learn from me. But what really makes a good student?
I’ve been pondering the question since walking into my first college classroom. As an adviser and teacher to many students, I have experienced a plethora of successes, some pretty sad failures, and a significant share of unbelievable turnarounds. I only teach journalism classes, so my students are degree-seeking majors attached to me throughout their degree program. It’s an intimate experience that provides me a large window into their lives, relationships, fears, and dreams.
But each class is remarkably different from all others. Sometimes I have a classroom filled with ambitious students, arriving on time, and making deadlines with quality work. Sometimes not. Importantly, each student must be viewed as a unique human being, fully capable of rising to expectations. The success of the student often depends on several critical factors, including family support, adopting realistic goals/expectations, engagement, personal responsibility, and understanding how college works.
Family Support: My classes are filled with many first-generation students. Family members may not fully understand the importance of providing emotional support and a positive vibe for their degree seeking loved one. Most of my successful students seem to have caring family members, ones that are actively involved in the academic process. Sometimes it takes a while – or a semester of bad grades – to get family members concerned enough to get involved. I have seen bad students become good students many times – almost always, if not always, it’s with the help of family.
Adopt Realistic Goals: A good student has a plan. As an adviser, I spend a lot of time trying to understand student goals and professional endeavors. It’s important for students to understand how a degree program is structured, the requirements for obtaining a degree, and how to advance along their program timeline. Good students look ahead, while not getting behind by dropping classes or taking on too many extracurricular activities. They understand college life can be fun – and should be – but the most important thing is advancing towards the graduation stage and professional life. They know their first real job won’t come with a car and six-figure salary.
Understand College Life: The transition from high school to college can be extremely disruptive. This is especially true for first-generation students with little, if any, prior exposure to the college lifestyle. In high school, students attend classes Monday-Friday, moving along an academic conveyor belt filled with familiar faces. In college, a new student may not know anyone. In high school, students live at home. In the dorm, students live with strangers – it can be intimidating and overwhelming. Joining a group or club can be a good thing, but don’t get involved at the expense of study time.
Engagement: Learning effective communication skills is vital to post-college success. The increasing problem associated with digital absorption – i.e. face planted in a phone screen – is eroding our ability to engage students. It’s a serious issue discussed often among my college colleagues and friends in the business world. My best students stow their phones during class, take notes, and ask questions. They engage me in conversation in and out of the classroom.
Personal Responsibility: In high school, students live at home and at school they run a rigid schedule from morning arrival to afternoon departure. In college, they live on their own. Students have variable schedules and they choose whether or not to go to class. They are completely unbridled. As a professor, I mark attendance – but I can’t enforce it. If a student misses a certain amount of classes, he/she may lose a letter grade or even risk getting dropped. An unexcused absence may mean the loss of assignment or test points. I treat my students as adults, not kids. It is my responsibility to train them for professional life – it’s their responsibility to show up.
Understanding How College Works: Students don’t always understand the rules, regulations, and policies that are essential to navigating campus life. Some students assimilate rapidly, while others seem to struggle for months or years. I enjoy advising students – which classes to take, internships, professional advice, etc. – but I may have 75 students to worry about. Students need to treat college like a job, maturing and progressing towards graduation.
Students need to realize that a college degree is earned, not awarded. It’s a great accomplishment and something to be very proud of. But earning a degree isn’t always enough. There are many ways to measure what a “good” student is – grades are the most obvious, but not everything. For the most part, a good student has family support, understands the expectations, gets involved in their academic pursuits, and fully matures into a responsible student ready and able to handle professional life beyond the classroom.
(Assistant Professor Will Sites has been teaching journalism at Lincoln University since 2014)