Updated: August 2017
By the time students enter college, they’ve invested more than 20,000 hours in academic learning. One might expect them to be adept learners, poised for success. However, instead of relishing their scholastic journey, many find themselves enduring it. The outcomes are stark—students pausing, quitting, or floundering through college.
This article delves beyond common misconceptions of student apathy or unpreparedness, exposing the true factors behind the performance gap. By focusing on the often-overlooked population of good students, we uncover pathways to not only help them thrive but revolutionize academic achievement as a whole.
Drawing insights from my upcoming book, How to Successfully Transition Students into College: From Traps to Triumph, this post profiles the good student population and provides critical insights on ways to help them thrive.
Picture this scenario: You’re a seasoned professional who has consistently excelled in your role according to your own standards and those of your supervisors. Your track record boasts outstanding performance reviews, and your colleagues hold your work in high esteem.
Now, you’ve transitioned to a new job where your responsibilities remain similar, albeit more demanding. You recognize the increased weight of these duties and pour in extra time and effort, working with heightened dedication. The moment arrives for your first project evaluation. Brimming with confidence, you’re convinced that your invested time and diligent effort will shine through. However, your supervisor deems your work quality as inadequate. To make matters worse, your effort is questioned for the first time in your career.
Stunned by this turn of events, you engage in a conversation with your supervisor to glean insights into what went awry and seek guidance on her expectations for the next project. You absorb her suggestions earnestly and redouble your efforts. Yet, despite your endeavors, your work continues to be judged as subpar. This pattern persists until you eventually disconnect emotionally from your job.
Inevitably, you redirect your energy toward pursuits that yield more significant returns, such as spending time with family or indulging in a hobby. With time, you unwittingly slip into the mold of an average employee—the very image your supervisor once labeled you as.
A similar sense of bewilderment is shared by new college students who aced exams and achieved top grades in high school who now find themselves struggling to reach the level of accomplishment they were confident they’d attain.
Over the past couple of decades, the issue of academic underperformance among college students has garnered considerable attention. Media outlets have extensively covered this phenomenon, and the matter is now a subject of exploration in both learning assistance and general higher education literature. This marks a shift from the typical focus on the “at-risk” population—students with pre-college academic backgrounds suggesting a potential need for extra support in college. The underperforming demographic comprises good students whose academic records indicate that they are prepared for college-level work.
In my high school…we just learned how not to be outworked by anyone.
– Good Student
Who are the “good” students?
Good students are those diligent, earnest, hardworking college attendees whose grades fall short of their capabilities and efforts. They’re learners who generally don’t fare poorly enough to trigger institutional academic alarms; their strong academic backgrounds and unwavering work ethics typically shield them from failing courses. Regrettably, what sets these students apart in high school doesn’t suffice to elevate them beyond mediocrity and up to their personal standards.
Students who tasted academic success prior to college enter higher learning institutions with an elevated academic self-image. They’re convinced of their prowess as students and anticipate grades that mirror their exertion and align with their self-perception. Just as the aforementioned employee struggled to build on her previous success in her new job, good students find it challenging to transition from their pre-college learning environment to the college milieu.
These capable learners invest themselves fully in preparing for exams, only to find their efforts deemed insufficient. Their commitment is questioned, leading them to disengage from academics over time, instead investing their efforts in alternative domains. At best, good students who lack adequate academic support will scrape through college but never realize their full potential. At worst—increasingly common—they become casualties of retention.
Why should we care?
They constitute around 80% of the student population.
The good student population forms the largest student cohort by far. Nevertheless, they often remain unrecognized by most colleges and universities, frequently lumped together with the much smaller, more easily identifiable “at-risk” group. In class, these students exhibit the studious habits of their more successful counterparts, whom we’ll refer to as “exceptional learners.” However, their test scores often resemble those of academically challenged students who skip classes or show up unprepared, appearing indifferent to their academic performance. Due to these factors, high-achieving students are frequently misclassified, incorrectly diagnosed or simply overlooked.
A recent article from The Washington Post titled “A Telling Experiment Reveals a Big Problem Among College Students: They Don’t Know How to Study” presents statistics indicating that 66% of students don’t leave college due to financial reasons, confirming observations made years ago that prompted the publication of this article in 2012. The Post piece offers a crucial insight frequently overlooked amid the numerous excuses students provide for leaving: “Some students leave college because classes just aren’t going well.” The scope of this issue is more substantial than anticipated and doesn’t even account for those who remain in school but struggle unnecessarily.
The prosperity of institutions hinges on their ability to identify, engage, and adequately support good students. In doing so, higher education establishments reap the greatest rewards from their investments.
Good students hold the key to transforming the academic landscape.
Effecting cultural change entails influencing students who wield a disproportionate impact on academic norms. Good students serve as potent agents of change due to their vast numbers, amplifying their influence and their potential to make substantial improvements with relatively fewer resources. Paradoxically, colleges and universities often invest in initiatives with high demands but low impact.
From my experience, addressing the needs of good students propels the entire institutional average forward. These students intermingle with lower-performing students, thus a cross-pollination can catapult a considerable portion of academically low-performing students to elevate to “good students” status. This upward shift in academic performance not only enhances the student and faculty culture but also plays a pivotal role in fostering a transformative educational environment.
How can educators and institutions help their students?
In my upcoming How to Successfully Transition Students into College: From Traps to Triumph, I unveil the concealed pitfalls that insidiously erode students’ academic progress, strain teacher-student relationships, and artificially cap their potential. Furthermore, I outline strategies for educators to dismantle these traps, paving a clear path from diligent effort to exceptional performance for good students.
Considering that good students constitute approximately 80% of the student population, offering them proper guidance and tools is not only pivotal for cultivating a culture of academic excellence but also a critical element for ensuring financial stability. However, numerous institutions are currently overlooking these students, providing inadequate support, and inadvertently impeding their efforts toward institutional success.
Within your classrooms, a plethora of good students remain oblivious to their entrapment. Here are three specific traps I delve into extensively in my book, which will aid you in identifying these promising individuals amidst your student body:
The 80/20 Trap
The 80/20 Trap materializes when students’ misconstrued notions of learning, carried over from their high school experiences, clash with the realities of college-level education. This becomes evident when students rely solely on attending lectures, overlooking their personal responsibility in managing their learning process.
This trap typically surfaces within the initial weeks of the semester. For instance, I vividly recall visiting a study session at the University of California, San Diego, where students were collectively poring over their class notes. When I inquired about their subsequent plans, they appeared puzzled, believing they had completed their study session.
It’s crucial for students to grasp that validating and finishing class notes mark the start of their learning journey, not its culmination. College educators can help extricate students from this trap by making strategic adjustments to their course structure and resources, empowering students to embrace independent learning.
The Academic Myopia Trap
This trap involves cognitive narrow-mindedness, wherein students concentrate solely on absorbing course content, neglecting the cultivation of course learning outcomes. As an example, consider a student enrolled in a course named “Accounting for Decision Making.” This student might meticulously scrutinize corporate documents, like annual reports and financial statements, yet fail to grasp how to utilize these documents for making business decisions. Consequently, they fall short of achieving the desired outcome and inevitably underperform.
The Pseudowork Trap
Pseudowork deludes individuals into thinking they’re making progress, while their efforts eventually prove futile. Imagine dedicated nursing students meticulously filling whiteboards with copious information. Despite feeling productive as the hours tick away, their efforts yield disappointing grades. They have unwittingly succumbed to the pseudowork trap.
Moreover, when students become ensnared in this trap, they inadvertently pull faculty members into it as well. Faculty might recognize the trap’s hold when they find themselves reteaching material or reviewing concepts during office hours. Despite the extra effort, they feel overwhelmed and undervalued.
By understanding these traps and their dynamics, educators can recalibrate their approaches, offering targeted interventions that liberate good students from their confines. In doing so, institutions can unlock the full potential of these students, fostering not only individual success but also driving broader positive transformations within the academic landscape.