Why Good Students Do “Bad” in College: Why We Should Care and What We Should Do

Updated: August 2017

By the time students enter college, they’ve invested more than 20,000 hours in academic learning. They should be expert learners. But rather than enjoying school, students endure it. Many eventually stop-out, drop-out or fail-out. Educators and institutions that cut through popular beliefs that students are apathetic, woefully unprepared or generationally deficient to understand the real reasons behind the student performance gap can create broad academic success.

This article profiles the good student population that makes up the majority of college students and provides critical insights on how to help them thrive.

Imagine you’re a professional who has performed your duties well by your and your supervisor’s standards. You have received outstanding performance reviews, and your work is held in high regard by your peers. 

Then you take a new job in which you are essentially performing the same duties. However, these duties carry greater weight. You understand that this new job demands more time and effort, and you work with increased energy and diligence. The time arrives for your first project review. You are confident. You’ve invested more time and worked more conscientiously than you ever did in your previous job. However, your supervisor deems the quality of your work unacceptable. Even worse, for the first time in your life, your effort is questioned.

Shocked, you meet with your supervisor to obtain insights about what went wrong and guidance concerning her expectations for the next project. You take her suggestions to heart and double down on your efforts. However, she still judges your work as inadequate. This cycle repeats itself until you eventually emotionally disengage from the job.

Ultimately, you put your energy into something that provides a greater return, such as your family or a hobby. Over time, you become the average employee your supervisor accused you of being.

Similarly perplexed are young people who aced tests and earned high marks in high school but in college, even with added study time, can’t figure how to rise to the level of achievement they’d been confident they’d attain. Over the past decade, the phenomenon of college student academic under-performance has received considerable attention.

Media outlets have covered the issue extensively, and the topic is now being addressed in the learning assistance and general higher education literature. This is a pivot from the ever-mentioned “at-risk” population, namely, those students whose pre-college academic backgrounds suggest they may need additional support in college. The under-performing population consists of “good” students, whose academic backgrounds suggest they should excel at the collegiate level.

In my high school…we just learned how not to be outworked by anyone.Good Student

Who are the “good” students?

Good students are the studious, serious-minded, hardworking college students whose grades lag behind their capabilities and efforts. They are learners who may not perform so poorly as to trigger institutional academic alerts; their solid academic backgrounds and sheer work ethics are typically enough to keep them from failing courses. Unfortunately, what made these students shine in high school isn’t enough to lift them above mediocrity and up to their personal standards.

Students who enjoyed pre-college academic success enter institutions of higher learning with a high academic self-image. They believe they are excellent students and expect to earn grades that reflect their effort and are consistent with their image. Like the employee who was unable to continue building upon her success as she transitioned to her new job, good students are unable to make the move from their pre-college learning environment into the college environment.

These capable learners invest themselves fully in preparation for their exams, only to have their work judged as inadequate. Their efforts are called into question, and over time they divest themselves from academics and reinvest in other areas. At best, good students who don’t receive proper academic assistance will get by but never live up to their capabilities in college; at worst – and increasingly more commonly – they will become retention casualties.

Why should we care?

They make up about 80% of the student population.

Good students are the overwhelmingly largest student cohort. Yet, they are unidentified by most colleges and universities and often lumped into the significantly smaller, more easily identified “at-risk” population. In class, good students exhibit the studious habits of their more successful peers, whom I call “great learners.” However, their test grades often resemble those of academically weak students who skip class or show up unprepared and who don’t seem at all serious about their academic performance. For these reasons, good students are mischaracterized, misdiagnosed or simply overlooked.

A recent Washington Post article: A telling experiment reveals a big problem among college students: They don’t know how to study, cites statistics suggesting that 66% of students “don’t leave college for financial reasons,” affirming my original observations that led to this article’s 2012 publication. The Post article provides a critical insight that is often missed in the myriad excuses students provide for leaving: “Some students leave college because classes just aren’t going well.” The “some” is much larger than we think, and this doesn’t include those who remain in school but needlessly struggle their way through.

Institutions’ fortunes hinge upon their ability to identify, appeal to, and properly assist good students. By helping them, places of higher learning produce the greatest return on their investments.

Good students hold the key to transforming the academic culture.

Cultural change requires impacting students who disproportionally influence the academic culture. Good students are effective vehicles for change because they are numerous, thus amplifying their impact, and because they can improve the most with the least number of resources. Unfortunately, colleges and universities operate in quite the opposite way; they make high demand/low impact investments.

In my experience, when good students’ needs are properly addressed, the entire institutional average is boosted. Good students quickly join the ranks of their great learning peers, and a significant share of academically poor-performing students become good students, thus shifting academic performance upward while enhancing the culture of students and faculty.

Why do we miss them?

Educators are too often blind to student learning issues. We too quickly attempt to explain away the problem. We simply cannot fathom the notion that students who struggle in our courses can be simultaneously smart and failing, hardworking and yet seemingly apathetic. Yet, this is the reality for good students. Our training and insecurities help us miss them, even though they are ubiquitous.


The good student experience is so prevalent that we gravitate to the anomalies. We’re blinded by the obvious. So in a class of 30 students, the 5-6 lowest-performing students who seemingly are militantly resistant get the “academic alert” treatment and so forth. The 5-6 high-performing students get the post-class conversations. The 20 or so good students are left to fend for themselves.


College educators are researchers at heart; they specialize in studying homogenous factors such as a specific program, demographic cohort or standardized scores. This narrow lens predisposes us to, at times, see the proverbial trees apart from the encompassing forest. I’ve seen numerous examples of micro-targeting in how institutions handle “at risk” students. For example, a college will designate a tiny group of students “at risk” based upon their pre-college scores.  They then will provide a suite of support services and track the students’ performance throughout the year.  Yet they will not compare the students with below-average performance overall to the “at risk” population. Those who do make such a comparison find that a surprisingly large share of below-average students do not fit their “at risk” profile. These are the good students.

Inaccurate Data

Obtaining accurate data on good students is challenging because good students have high academic self-images and often use “face saving” tactics to preserve a facade of success. Perhaps the most effective is the “I can’t afford to attend here anymore” excuse. This concise statement allows them to “gracefully” exit having fully convinced institutional officials (and themselves partially) that they didn’t fail. They were forced to leave due to reasons beyond their control. It’s the equivalent to the “it’s not me, it’s you” line used when we want out of a personal relationship. It allows one side out of the relationship while simultaneously disarming the other.

How can educators and institutions help their good students?

Like many studies, reports, and articles I’ve read over the years, the Washington Post piece sees a portion of the problem and jumps to a few logical, but wrong conclusions. Students’ problems are rooted in more nuanced dilemmas than those mentioned in the article. A primary reason good students perform poorly in college is because they’ve developed an approach to learning that is successful in K-12 environments but incompatible with college. Researchers have found that this approach encompasses a complex network of social roles and cues, psychological triggers and cognitive phenomena that are embedded in students’ learning routines.

The bad news is that students are completely unaware of their approach to learning. Their educators are equally as clueless about their students’ methods. Therefore, neither recognizes the pernicious effects. The good news is that students can quickly adjust their approach, and when they do, they will experience immediate and broad successes that can endure throughout their academic careers.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve been researching the factors that distinguish good students from great learners. I’ve gained several insights and developed a number of strategies that have proven highly effective at helping good students live up to their capabilities and efforts. Below are three reasons why these students struggle in college and ways to help them.

Reason # 1: 80/20; 20/80 Principle

This rule is listed first because it’s perhaps the most important concept students must grasp about the collegiate learning environment. More importantly, once they grasp it, they must fully understand its implication in their everyday study routine.

Over the years, I asked students to identify their main source of information in preparing for tests during their pre-college learning experience. Students quickly listed their teacher as this source. I began calling this the 80/20 principle. Practically all (or 80%) of the information students needed to know to be successful on their pre-college exams came from one source, their teacher. The teacher dispensed this information via classroom lessons, then reinforced it through homework assignments and perhaps further by reviewing homework assignments during classes and in test study guides. (Many consider this process “spoon-feeding,” though I reject the term when used as a pejorative.) More than preparing students for tests, this routine conditioned them to view the teacher as the primary agent of test preparation. This is why college students ask professors if what they are talking about in class is going to be on the test.

The conditioning process of the high school environment trains young people to believe that if they pay close attention in class, record everything the teacher writes on the board, memorize what is handed out, and stay on the conveyor of activities in high school, they will earn A’s. That is the 80%, or the majority, of their learning. The 20% consists of a brief review a day or so before tests.

When these students, the ones whose efforts and capabilities have been repeatedly affirmed and rewarded by high marks and praise, go to college, they take this approach to learning with them. However, they, like the professional who takes the weightier job, know that to excel at the next level they must apply greater effort. And, like the professional, their work is deemed inadequate despite their increased efforts. No matter how much they attempt to rectify their learning problems, they can’t produce above-average work.

In college, students must reverse the 80/20 principle and begin operating according to a 20/80 principle. This means they should consider the information the professor provides in class via lectures and study guides as roughly 20% of the content needed to be successful on exams. They must generate the other 80% by synthesizing, grounding, and expounding upon the class information. This work is done outside of class. This is what college is all about!

I developed the 80/20; 20/80 principle many years ago after counseling hundreds of students who were experiencing the same academic problems. The percentages were ways of communicating a larger point. However, recent researchers have found that 85% of all college learning is done independently outside of the class and usually involves some type of text (Flippo, R., 2009). This means to students that success in class has significantly more to do with their reading and work outside of class.

Daily Implications: The 20% the professor provides is incredibly important, but it is insufficient for test preparation. Unlike the pre-college teacher, the college professor sees his role as that of a guide. Therefore, he does not expect to provide students information to pass tests. He expects to guide students as they learn the content. However, students enter college still under the “spell” of their previous learning environment. They reflexively attempt to apply the no-longer-sufficient 80/20 principle. They attempt to absorb 80% of knowledge out of 20% of information. This is impossible and it is a recipe for insanity! Students are essentially obtaining only 40% of the information (a critical 20% from the professor and the 20% they’re accustomed to getting by their own efforts). The 40% equals many students’ raw exam scores without a curve (a little humor here, but not too much).

Solution: So how do we move students from an 80/20 mindset to a 20/80 attitude? 

Show them their past. It is imperative that we provide some context to students’ pre-college learning experiences. As I say in each workshop, high school is an extremely salient era in our learning skills development because it is the period in which we either develop or solidify our study approach.

By default, college students will implement the approaches and strategies that worked for them in high school – just with greater effort. These strategies and approaches got them into college, and they expect them to get them through college. Besides, these tools are all they know. They don’t have another set of unused, more appropriate learning tools at their disposal. I’ve gone through many boxes of tissues over the years, explaining to students why their strategies worked in high school but are ineffective in college. Their tears of despair are transformed into tears of hope as they gain insight into their problem and optimism rises.

Tell them their present. Once students have insight into one of the primary roots of their problem, they are in a position to change their mindset. The gift – or present – you will provide them (pun fully intended) is an opportunity to make a quality choice. They can choose to continue operating on the 80/20 principle and continue under-performing, or they can adopt the 20/80 principle and begin capitalizing on their capabilities and efforts.

Present a brighter future. Put on your salesperson’s hat! It’s time to sell the students on what learning can be like if they move to a level playing field. The adoption of the 20/80 principle will put them on that field. It is important to increase their feeling of pleasure enough that it will overcome the discomfort that will accompany change. Drill in the notion that they have been playing the “game” differently from their more successful peers, and that they can enjoy success as well if they develop a 20/80 mindset.

It’s important to note that the 20% presented in class via PowerPoint presentations, lecture notes, video clips, and such is essential for students to develop their knowledge, but simply rehearsing this information is inadequate. For good students to develop into great learners they must view these actions as the start of learning, not the end.

The 80% work students must do in college is appreciably different from the work they did in high school. They must change their academic orientation from a knowledge acquirer to a knowledge developer. This conversion often requires them to activate a complex set of thinking skills and integrate external content to amplify the information that was dispensed during class. If good students do take these steps, they’ll move to a level playing field that the great learners have already been scoring on.

Reason #2: Immobile Thinking

Mobility refers to our ability to move from one level of quality to another. It’s an omnipresent intrinsic metric we use to gauge a range of life experiences from relationships to employment to socioeconomic status. Constantly weighing our current position against our beginning is a perpetual and deep-seated trait.

Mobility is also a key aspect of learning. Whenever students learn something, they achieve mobility. This mobility is manifested in the fact that they have moved from one level of knowledge to another level. There are two types of mobility that I have found in learning: horizontal mobility and vertical mobility.

Horizontal mobility is an accumulation of knowledge on the same thinking level. Typically, the knowledge is accumulated on a lower thinking level, and it is insufficient for rigorous coursework. Horizontal mobility represents immobile thinking or superficial learning because it generates a sense of progress, but ultimately it does not provide students the type of interactions needed to reach sufficient outcome.

When students engage in horizontal thinking, they accumulate knowledge that is the proverbial “mile wide and an inch deep.” This occurs because their thoughts about the content are underdeveloped, and their knowledge did not deepen throughout their learning. Students who think horizontally will reach the same lower-level learning outcomes regardless of their thinking capabilities or the time they invest.

Horizontal thinking is common. One example was presented during a conversation with a student from an elite, private prep school. He was struggling to perform up to expectations in college. The student was known for devoting exorbitant hours to his studying, but he was unable to produce grades consistent with his intelligence and efforts. When asked why he thought he was unable to produce high grades, he stated, “In my high school, they didn’t teach us how to learn; we just learned how not to be outworked by anyone.” His hard work was admirable, but inadequate.

Visit the "tools" page to download your free pdf. version.

Vertical mobility is the key to college student learning; specifically, downward mobility is the goal. Higher-level thinking skills are directly correlated with deep learning outcomes and metacognitive conditions. As students engage in deep metacognitive functioning, they automatically activate the types of high-level thinking skills that produce the kind of deep learning outcomes that are consistent with rigorous tests. (See the  Thinkwell-Learnwell Diagram™ above for a visual depiction of this relationship.)

The more meaningful interactions represented by the ability to achieve vertical mobility using the Diagram is the differentiating factor between good students and great learners. Great learners achieve vertical mobility during their study activities, whereas good students may invest an equal amount of time studying the same material, but their interaction only produces horizontal mobility. This distinction underlies the vast difference in academic performance between good students and great learners.

Reason #3: Studying in “Hope-So Land”

Great learners are like great investors; they work in ways that ensure they will get a return on their investments. Great learners study in ways that align with their tests. They are much surer that what they study will be reflected on tests because they line up the needed learning outcome (or what they are expected to know for the tests, and more importantly, the level at which they need to know it) with their pre-studying learning goals. They study in “know-so land.” This is the place where students have a pretty sound idea that what they learned while studying will be sufficient for their tests.

Good students, on the other hand, are rarely aware of the learning outcomes that are expected for their tests; therefore, they cannot have any assurance that they are learning the right stuff for their tests. They just repeatedly punch the ole studying time clock and hope that the time spent studying will lead to a great test performance. More often than not, however, they perform far below their standards. They repeat the process again without an inkling that their great learning peers, who may even be studying alongside them, are studying in know-so land.

How to Move Students to “Know-So Land”

 Increase students’ metacognitive awareness. There are three levels of studying: behavioral (the observable tasks for studying), cognitive/domain-level (the information or content with which students interact), and metacognitive/meta-level (the processing that occurs between the lines of the cognitive activity). Of these three, metacognition is where good students and great learners differ most. In fact, research shows that students who are not metacognitively aware will struggle in college.

Good students and great learners exhibit virtually the same activities and characteristics on the behavioral and cognitive levels. On the cognitive level, all students have access to the same materials – textbooks, class time, etc. And on the behavioral level, research affirms that good students and great learners spend the same amount of time studying (some research suggests good students spend more time studying). The activities that occur on the metacognitive level are the ones that transform students’ quantity of studying into quality learning. Great learners generate deeper interactions with academic content, but with the proper metacognitive conditions, good students can do the same.

Teach students a concept that I call “Outcome Variation” –– that a variety of learning outcomes can be reached with the same content. Typically, good students are unaware that multiple outcomes can be reached with the same information. Simply taking a relatively easy segment of content and demonstrating that different outcomes can be reached with that content is immeasurably valuable to students. For example, the laws of thermodynamics can be contemplated on different thinking levels: remembered, explained, applied, analyzed, etc. Each thinking skill will yield different learning outcomes from the same segment of information. Once students become metacognitively aware of the conditions that influence their learning, they can progress toward managing their learning more effectively.

The ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram was created to enable students to successfully navigate their way from hope-so to know-so land. It helps students optimize their thinking and maximize their performance. When students use the diagram, they typically state 1) that they feel as if they are studying less but getting more out of the process, and 2) that they can predict what’s going to be on the test. These qualitative changes are two main indicators that they are evolving as learners.

The statements are students’ ways of articulating that they are becoming more adept at ascertaining the most salient content and are no longer overwhelmed by the information. It is a sign of metacognitive control. Their new method of interaction is measurable evidence of growth because it demonstrates their ability to effectively evaluate information, which is an advanced thinking skill. Students are often amazed to realize that they have progressed from lower-level thinking to higher-level thinking in a relatively short period of time.

We now know a few reasons why good students do “bad” in college. We’ve also explored some solutions to help them evolve into great learners. The accompanying infographic clarifies some of the distinctions.


Flippo, R., Caverly D.C, (2009). Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.

Comments 115

  1. This applies to so many students. The analogy really gave me insight into how the students feel. I will definitely be using this information when advising students.

  2. Thank you for this! The blog is great and the chart will be incredibly valuable at our Learning Center.

    I’ve seen lots of versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy/Thinking Skills and this one works beautifully, especially in that it ties the Metacognitive Goals and the Learning Outcomes to Bloom’s Taxonomy (or hierarchy). So it’s easy to understand the “pre” goals and the “post” results, and how they tie into the general Thinking Skill.

    Best wishes for your endeavors—it sounds like you are providing an amazing service to students. Keep it up!

      1. This article has really identified some major problems I already have faced and really did not know any answers. I have a pre-med curriculum to finish and realized when I took my first couple of science classes I was really struggling. I quickly understood that material covered would be given in massive amounts and to memorize it was not realistic and not even effective. Not effective because things memorized really did not have much, if anything to do with test questions. I also liked the explanation of 80/20 rule being reversed to the 20/80 rule by moving from high school to college. Understanding the way the professor is presenting the information and how to obtain information needed are very important variables in maximizing learning. I am exited to form these new learning skills because I realize that there has to be a strategic was to efficiently review a mass amount of material and be able to expound on in with sound understanding. The reality of learning is everything usually builds from previous information. So there is no way to get around being able to use massive amount of information if you are really trying to be successful.

      2. Are there any “role play” or scenarios that can illustrate concretely how this plays out for students? I think they would benefit from “hearing” exactly what the “typical” student is doing/thinking in a real (simulated) situation.

        1. Post
  3. Thanks Leonard, for making your viewpoint available to others! I am particularly proud that you are sharing this from your perspective as a student affairs staff person – as a fellow student affairs professional, I am glad that others can know that we care about student learning just as much as facutly!!!

  4. What a great post.

    I particularly like the way you explained 80/20 vs. 20/80 rules. I see so many of my students fall prey to the fallacy that they’re still functioning under the 80/20 rule in college.

    And of course, metacognition holds a special place in my heart since it forms the foundation of so many reading skills.

    Great site. I look forward to reading more content.

  5. Teaching at a community college I find most of the students are imbedded in the 80/20 rule. The second thing is they are very insecure about what they know and what they think they know! It is not lack of desire but lack of confidence. I plan on using this article for a workshop with other faculty in the near future. Thanks for the article!!

  6. Thanks for the diagram. I teach a humanities course called Critical Literacy which focuses on the theme of how we create knowledge. These scales are all addressed in various forms and activities during the course, but it’s really nice to see it in one concise sheet. I use the learning goals when we address reading and asking questions about what we have to read. The better questions one asks, the better answers (hopefully) one will get from a reading. Questions that ask for higher order thinking responses help students make knowledge more usable and retainable.

  7. I had already quoted the ideas I heard from you at the recent Lenoir Rhyne parent info session before finding this article. I will try to spread the word among my fellow educators. It’s never too early to foster these kinds of behaviors.

  8. I can definitely relate to all of the descriptions of a “good student” in this article. I can’t wait to go through the study and learn more, as well as learn how to put into practice what I learn to become a great learner.

  9. This is all very good information that I wish I would have known before college. I am glad we have people that care for us. I am here and I have learned so much by reading this article and seek to be a “great learner”. I did identify myself a lot with some of the students here. It is very difficult to adapt but it is very fulfilling to know that we can do it! Thanks for the help and looking forward to raising that GPA!

  10. I wish high school would have prepared me better than they did. They did not teach me how to study or what to study. I cannot wait to start this study and get information on study strategies on how to help me in my college courses.

  11. I feel like if I would have known these things in high school I would have been more prepared for college. Even if I would have known these things freshmen year I think I could have done well. My problem is I always feel like I am so prepared for things but when I get the grade back, I guess I still don’t understand. I’m ready for help so I can show that I do know what I am learning.

  12. I wish I would have been taught these things sooner like in high school. Even if I would have known these things freshmen year I think I could have done well. I’m ready to do something that will help me show that I know what I am learning.

  13. This is a really good article. I believe that students that did really well in high school expected college to be a breeze because they did so well in high school. Especially students that made good grades without studying. Students are too cocky, they believe that they know everything and that their way is the right way since they have been doing it that way the entire time and it has been working just fine for them. However, now that they are in a totally new environment with different people. Things will not always be the same and they will have to learn how to adapt to the new changes.

  14. This is really a great blog!! I learned and identify myself in the situations and can label myself as a “good student”. I believe this Study will help me, at least I hope-so (ha humor there). Though as a student, that always did great in high school, I really can only hope that this is something that can help be with my studies to become that doctor I want to be. Strange, I am the student that you can ask a question to and 8 times our of 10 I can answer it orally. I’m a great oral presenter, just a horrible test taker, now anyway. I will know why at the end of the 5 weeks though!

    Thanks for this!

  15. I thought I had all the keys to becoming a great learner after you came into my class a while back but now that I have a job on top of my school work I am struggling to use what time I have to study wisely. I am hoping that by hearing and reading this information again I will be able to redirect my study habbits an get some better grades.

  16. I most definitely wish I would’ve known this information during high school. Like most high school students, I thought that college would be just the same and I could easily get through it just like I did in high school, but it’s way different. I’m ready to improve!

  17. I really wish I knew this freshman year. As a junior now I feel as if I’m still studying wrong and that by trying this new way of studying out my grades will see an increase as well. I just hope its not to late to change. I really hope my mobility is good

  18. I really wish I knew this when I was a freshman. I mean I knew that my high school did not prepare me for college. But all along it was just wrong studying habits that I developed in high school. Hopefully I will be able to do what need to be done to improve.

  19. This article describes me to a “T.” I was a “good” student in high school and I never really had to study too much. I’m having trouble trying to find a way of studying that fits me best and reflects good grades. I think that the 80/20; 20/80 idea is great. I know that a lot of what my teachers discuss is explained more in the book. Fifty minutes is just not enough time to elaborate on topics. Generally, the book is where all of the answers are and I struggle trying to figure out how to read textbooks and be well prepared for tests. I’m so excited for this study and cannot wait to become a GREAT student!

  20. Knowing this information would have made high school so much easier. I knew that college would present a challenge but I thought I’d be coasting through my first year much better than I am. With it still being early, I know that I can still change. Hopefully learning and understanding this new information will make my next years of undergraduate studies less of a struggle.

  21. I am looking forward to hearing more advice from you! The little advice you gave my class has helped me get closer to the “know-so land.” I hope this 4-week study will get me on track and get me to the grade I know I deserve!

  22. I really do wish I had learned about this in high school. I remember hearing this at a convo a few months back, but reading the article on my own has helped me to better understand how I’m not really studying the way I should be. I’m hoping to change that.

  23. I really see my self as a “Hope So” learner after reading this and seeing that when it comes down to it alot of the time I am hoping that what I study is going to be on the test or quiz if the professor doesnt tell the class. I have always struggled on my quiz/test taking skills and would really like to be able to come out of the study being better in that area. My Goal is to be a “Know So” learner if I can be.

  24. All of this information has made me realized that I have been one of those students that conforms to mediocre grades. Know i have made the decision of stepping up and beginning to really become applied in school. I am really hoping, that with this method, I can improve my GPA.

  25. I wish I knew about this my Freshman year, because I now feel as if I’m behind. Hopefully this workshop will not only help me but everyone else who is trying to boost their GPA. I felt as if I was reading about myself, and I hope this will help.

  26. I really wish I could have read this my first year at college. As I was reading this, it was kind of eye opening to see that I did bring my study skill to college with me from high school, which required little to no time of studying. I could usually pay attention in class, read over my notes one time, take the test and make an A. I have realized that in college it does not work like that. I actually have to put in some study hours, and I do not have good study skills because I had never needed them in high school. I’m glad that I have read this and taking action in improving my grades and “learning” how to study in a more useful way. I can’t wait to receive great advice and tips during the next four sessions!

  27. Yes, I totally agree with this, I kinda feel like I wasn’t prepared enough in High school and maybe didn’t take it as seriously, I wish I would have started this my freshman year and taken things seriously before

  28. Thanks for this! I really wish I would’ve known this in high school and before my freshman year, so that I could’ve been better prepared for my college experience. I’m ready to better my college education and learn how to do my very best!

  29. This dovetails very nicely with the conversations I have with my students–thanks for a very clear description of the problem, and for a diagram that can help me make clear how we are working to change their study habits.

  30. Oh my god. I really wish I knew this before my freshman year. I went from being an all honors straight a student…to finishing my freshman year of college with a 2.7. I almost gave up hope completely, but then I took one summer class and I learned how to study for that class appropriately….saving me later on. Now my brother is struggling with the same thing and I intend on showing him this article.

  31. I really like how this article hit home for me. In high school, I wasn’t taught how to learn OUTSIDE of the classroom, only how to pass the tests coming up. I now realize that I have to put in the effort to take the time to learn on my own and actually become the “good student” I know I can be. Very helpful tips!

  32. This was a very well organized and informative blog. In all of my years of studying, I never considered actually diving into the subject, I was only taught to memorize facts. Although memorizing facts are helpful, doing this alone is impossible for just about any college student to do while maintaining A’s at the same time. Aside from just memorizing, students have to really “know” what the subject is talking about. We cannot just read the words off of the page, but we need to truly understand what the text is saying.

  33. This article was absoulty fantasic! And should be handed to every student prior to entering college. If i wasn’t an INTP personaility learner, i would have probably failed my first college class. This article should definitely be taken by conderation of high schools nation wide.

  34. thanks you so much, this really helped me. it’s a very useful tool and will hopefully lead me back on track. thanks.

    1. Thanks for your interest Ming. I wish you the best success. Check out some of the articles on the blog as they will provide some valuable insight into issues that affect student learning.

  35. I wish I knew this before I started this semester. Transitioning from high school to college was a little major for me. But I’m glad that I got this information now because it has enlighten me on what I was doing with my study habits that wasn’t really working for me. I read to apply this and see a big change in my test scores as well as my overall grades.

  36. Dear Mr. Geddes,
    Thank-you for your presentation on August 13 for the partime faculty of CCCTI. You would make a most excellent clinical psychologist. Your model of the learning…thinking process is so refreshing and simple to understand and implement in the learning environment. It is very similar to the model of clinical psychology that I was taught in my graduate education. It is very exciting to have your model to use to demonstrate and identify the cognitive processes that students are using and need to develop to be successful in the academic environment. I agree if that if a student can identify their thinking level or strategy then they can increase the depth of learning. This is very similar to the process of successful psychotherapy at least as I have experienced it over 30 years. Please continue to develop your model as we need to rediscover the fundamentals of learning and instruction are linked to how we think. I am excited about your efforts.

  37. I am a Freshman student in Dr. LePrevost’s FYE, and I found this article very insightful because it further elaborated on reasons why high school is not an accurate model for college. It is a little daunting for me because I always did well in high school by listening to the teacher, taking notes, and studying for tests, usually on the night before. I did not have to exert much effort because it was not difficult to memorize the required material. I hope to achieve “vertical” mobility in my learning and I realize it will take much more concentrated, out-of-class effort on my part to “know” what and how I am studying and actively reading. Thank you for giving “good students” hope to become “great” learners and thinkers. I will apply these different thinking skills to the way I learn and use the metacognition techniques to deepen my understanding of college-level material and how it relates to the real world.

  38. This article was incredible. It definitely gave me a different outlook on how to view a ‘great learner’ versus a ‘good learner.’ I wish I would have read this article before my semester started, but it is something I can always apply to my studies from here on out. The funny part is I have always put so much time and effort into my studies and received nothing higher than a ‘B’ but the person beside me barely studies and aces the test. Now I understand why based off the facts about 80/20 and 20/80 learning. Thank you for providing a solution and explanation to help improve our work/study habits!

  39. I hope to become a vertical learner and learn how to interact with the content I will be studying throughout college. This model of learning will help me throughout college. I believe that becoming a vertical learner will help me not only with Professor Hedrick’s FYE class, but in all my classes within my four years of college. I hope to keep up all my grades and study the right way to be able to become a nurse.

  40. I thought this article was interesting, especially the 80/20 and 20/80 rule. I can see how this rule is true, especially when I first started taking college classes. It is definitely important to learn how to take what the professor teaches in class, and figure out what other information you need to know. If you ask your professor what information will be on the test, the will tell you for the most part. The trick is figuring out what is most important to study when they are broad with the test material.

  41. I have always wondered what has happen to me in collage! I was spending more time and getting less grades! suddenly the honor student was way behind. I felt so misplaced and since then I doubted myself and the major I have chosen!

    I really wish I knew this beforehand!!

  42. I’ve shared the original 80/20 rule with the parents of our incoming freshman at orientation. They appreciate having this information!

  43. Thank you for your work and for creating this project to share and disseminate your concepts and ideas to your colleagues. I have been following and reading your posts for years and always appreciate your insight.

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  44. Great information. Including the 80/20, 20/80 principle in a syllabus and reviewing these concepts the first day of class might help students know how to better apply their study time.

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      I agree. It’s one of the most consequential concepts that students must learn, fully appreciate the implications and work out in their daily academic experience. In addition to teaching it the first day, I recommend you revisit it in subsequent weeks.

  45. One hurdle for students is understanding that trying harder is not the same as trying better. Given that they’ve have invested those 20,000 hours in what may be unproductive behaviors, they need convincing and coaching in order to develop better habits of mind.

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      The challenge is that students’ behaviors have been productive in their past academic environments. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so it’s perfectly normal and expected for students to rely upon what has worked for them (hence the opening part of the article.)

  46. The article is reflective of what I have observed as well at my university. Presenting the 80/20 principle and including the info graphic chart I believe would help students grasp what shifts in thinking might be needed in transitioning between high school and college.

  47. I am the director of my institution’s tutoring center, and this article struck a chord with me. These are the students who wait until after midterms to seek help because they falsely believe, “I’ve got this. I can do this.”

    The transition of the great high school student to the “good” college student can also deal a heavy blow to her self-concept. In fact, many high school honors students I have worked with spend a good deal of time in denial that they could possibly be doing as poorly as they are in school. When the realization occurs that it is them and not the professor or the school, they are confused and sometimes devastated. They feel short-changed by their high school teachers and chagrined with college faculty and staff who didn’t emphasize the difference between high school and college enough. I understand why they leave.

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  48. Great article! I wonder if these same (or similar issues) occur in the transition from undergraduate to graduate school?

  49. I see this every year as I advise new college students. The graphic will be a great illustration of the concept for them. Thanks.

  50. Very insightful article! I particularly appreciate the catch phrases to use when talking with students about building upon their strengths and shifting their paradigms. The 80/20; 20/80 mindset is hugely impactful! I really look forward to incorporating this information in campus stakeholder conversations and even training for academic peer leaders!

  51. Using this information in a presentation for new student orientation today and tomorrow. Perfect timing! Will be reinforcing it in my UNV 101 course.

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      These concepts have helped hundreds of students throughout the country and beyond make needed adjustments to college. Good luck!

  52. We have begun talking reaching the “murky middle” of our students, and this article zones in directly on those students. This is a great resource as we are trying to better understand this group of students and develop programs and services to help them move to that next level of learning and success.

  53. High schools bear some of the blame; by 10th grade high school students should be treated like they ARE in college. No more extra credit. No more getting points for making corrections on tests. No more acceptance of late assignments.

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      I’m not sure if high school are to blame, but I do think the system in which high school operate bear some responsibility. My work with high schools show that teachers are responsive to a set of short-term metrics and outcomes that work for their environment, but are not compatible with higher education. I think federal and state legislative changes are needed to create a more seamless transition.

  54. Love all this information and insight! Great conversation topics and visuals to introduce and discuss with Peer Tutors and SI Leaders, as well as in workshops with first year college students. Thank you!

  55. Thank you for sharing this article! And it connects to so many helpful resources. I am a Student Affairs professional who coordinates and trains Study Skills tutors, and this information reflects much of what we teach in our trainings, and in our workshops for students. It’s so useful to have this information brought together in one article, and linked to research. I’d love a copy of the pdf if you are willing to share!

  56. When Good Students do Bad is a great article! Very informative and useful information. Can you please send me the link to the pdf of the infographic? Thanks

  57. Great article! I would love to discuss this article with my College Success students this semester. I look forward to the PDF.

  58. I teach an honors section of a first year experience course at a highly diverse state university. This makes for a compelling classroom experience for me and my students. It also means that the students often arrive with widely dissimilar academic preparation. Your 80/20 approach offers a perspective that I feel will really penetrate and aligns well with my presentation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Many thanks for a terrific article and the pdf!

  59. I teach a Managing Writing Anxiety course. You talk about mindsets! I am looking forward to sharing the infographic with my students. Leonard has some of the best. Thank you!

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      Stay tuned for the forthcoming series on writing. I’ll cover the topic from the students and educators perspectives.

  60. Interesting approach to a conflicting group of data. As director of doctoral curriculum, I find significance in the “pipeline” discussion – why are we losing diversity of mind too early in the educational path. Your metacognitive approach reinforces those tactics we bring to our students! I look forward to additional discussions with my fellow faculty and administrators. Thank you.

  61. I struggle with getting students to understand that they need to put more effort into their studies in college than they might of had to do in high school, but could never explain it to their or my satisfaction as to WHY they needed to. I think this will help bridge the gap. May not convince them to do so, but if I can reach more students and help them to succeed that are currently struggling with how to do better I will be happy.

  62. Is it ok for these “good children’ to misbehave in class? Is there a reason for this misbehavior by them ? This is in the high school context.

  63. The 80/20 – 20/80 concept is exactly what students need to understand upon entering college. I think the way this concept is represented is clear and help frame one of the major academic challenges facing students. Very rarely is ability the root of poor academic achievement, the cause is most often related to one’s effort.

  64. Interesting observations. I wonder how different math classes are from high school math classes. I don’t think that we require them to do much more than apply the information that they have learned.

  65. Thank you for this information! my son is a college freshman and falls right into “good student” category. I’m sending him this information!

  66. Thank you for sharing!
    I was confused by same question for many years. Luckily, I found the explanation and solution in your article. I am looking forward to my future, in other words, college life!

  67. I love this article, because it’s just reflect my situation right now. I really want to adjust myself and adapt the college life. I think this article will help me a lot about it.

  68. I am a freshman in college and struggling with the same problem. I can’t be the student that I was in my high school. Now, after reading this article, I am figuring out the reasons behind it and also trying to solve all of them as soon as possible. This is well-researched article and helpful to students like me.

  69. Wow this is definitely me… I’m a senior in college and I have never realized any of this until now… I feel ashamed for not knowing but no one ever told me..

  70. Great article, what you wrote really resonated with me because I could relate to many of the conditioned biases of a pre-college learning environment. I will review the outlined tips regularly in order to get back on track with academic achievements.

  71. These are immensely valuable tips and insights for any college student to maximize not just the college experience but also self esteem and performance.

  72. Hi! I’m a current college student and I see myself falling into the traps mentioned in this article pretty often. However, can you clarify on the 20/80 rule in college? How should I go about in developing the 80% of knowledge that is not imparted?

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      Hi Emily-

      You develop the other 80% by using your thinking skills to go beyond the content that was delivered in class. For example, let’s say your professor references a definition of evolution and a definition of natural selection. She may reference a couple of examples to add more life to the definitions. Your job is to recognize that this information is only a small portion of what she will expect you to know. I can’t tell you exactly what she will want you to know, but I can tell you that, if the course is challenging, then you will need to know the information at a deeper level than this. So, you might use the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram to analyze the difference between evolution and natural selection. If you do the work to extend your knowledge to this depth, then you will be able to answer question prompts that are asking you to perform at this level. This is the other 80%. I hope this helps.

  73. I really wish two things: (1) I had read this before spiraling into failing out of college with no foreseeable opportunity of returning (at least for several more years) and therefore halting any chance of success in getting my dream job; and (2) that far more educators would also read this and apply it, especially in STEM-based degrees where frankly the stereotype holds (in my experience) of a limited mindset in teaching and a focused mindset in being a nerd and not understanding how to teach nerd.

    I’m saving this article and hope to find it when the future allows me an opportunity to return to college, and therefore hope to enter college post-40-years of age with no career prospects past 50.

  74. If only I was taught this before college. This was a amazing article it made me more woke and helped me open my eyes. I can definitely relate to this article.

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