How to Be a Good Student
An Eternal Context
Recently at our stake conference, someone asked Boyd K. Packer how it was possible to cope with really severe problems. He said that the best way he knew was to learn to develop an eternal perspective. Similarly, the best way to become a good student is to develop a broad panorama of how becoming a student is an important part of other aspects of your life you value. When I got married my grades went up--not just because I finally had the luxury of being free of the dating scene. I became a better student because I had solidified my role as a provider and leader of a family; in short, a clearer conception of myself and my very real responsibilities to others motivated me rather than some abstract
nagging to "do well."
In school, as in so much else, attitude determines. I suggest that faith is the first principle of
being a good student. Believe that you can succeed. Believe that this institution, including its
teachers, exists to help you prosper. Believe that it is part of your eternal destiny to learn. I took this
job at Ricks College having finished all of my course work and exams for my doctors degree. But
I had not written my dissertation. I worked on it when I came here, but other things got in the way.
Finally after ten years, I got a semester's leave of absence and decided to finish. I had psyched myself
out all those years thinking it was too hard, that I was not capable enough. But once I decided to go
for it, I scheduled my time, determined a plan of action, and got 250 pages written in four months.
My point: once I repented, bolstered my faith, and saw this task in an eternal perspective I was able
to accomplish my goals. The same is true for anyone who sets on the course of succeeding at school.
A Time-specific Rather Than Task-specific Conception of School
You have probably learned to look at school as a set of assignments you must complete and turn in. I want to ask you to alter that perception. School and assignments should be means to learning. Let me suggest that college is a time to enter the real world, the world of work. In some cultures you would be earning a living now instead of being in school. As quickly as you can, you should abandon the sheer joy of being away from home that leads you to believe college is play time and that freedom means you can spend your time and money to socialize.
I propose that you look at being a student as a job with a forty-eight hour work week: 8-6 five days a week and half a day on Saturday. Missionaries, parents, and adults in the corporate and professional worlds have much longer weeks than that. Here is the way it works: You are taking 16 hours of classes. And for every hour in class you spend two hours out of class--that's 3 x 16 = 48. Just as at a job, you have to put your time in to succeed.
One objection to this conceptions is that it seems to leave little or no time for social life. But upon closer examination you can see that that is not really true. This job conception of school just regulates your study time to the best time of the day. Instead of all night study sessions before a test, you have done the work as you go along. And by this way of looking at school, you have all your evenings free. You have Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday for other activities.
Of course, another big objection is that some of you have to hold job to go to school. I had to work my way through college, so I know the challenge. You may have to take fewer classes or sacrifice some of your social life. You may even have to slightly revise the ideal of two hours out of class for one in class. Though it sounds idealistic, I suggest that even with working your way through school, you should see your role as a student as being your principle job and your other job as moonlighting.
I guarantee that if you look at school not just in terms of its tasks--to complete assignments,
write papers, and study for tests--you will be much more successful. The key to this altered view
of school of course is to like what you do. School is not the drudgery you must complete so you can
do the things you like with your life. You must learn to love learning and school. It may take you
a while to achieve this ideal. It took Virginia Woolf forty years: "At forty I'm beginning to learn the
mechanism of my own brain--how to get the greatest amount of pleasure and work out of it. The
secret is I think always to contrive that work is pleasant."
The Course, the Teacher, the Subject, and You
You and the subject are more important factors in your education than the teacher and the course. Later I will give you some tips about playing the education game, how to do well in courses. But always try to keep in mind the fact that you are trying to learn a subject and/or skills. The teacher and the course exist to that end; they shouldn't be ends in themselves. Unfortunately, in worst cases, teachers and courses stand in the way of your learning a subject. At any rate, try to keep in mind the subject and skill you hope a teacher and a course will help you achieve. Don't let a teacher or a syllabus slow you down.
When I taught at the Air Force Academy, the top senior cadet and his friend who was ranked about sixth joined the Church. I asked them about their academic success. They said they started each semester (sometimes they would begin even before the semester started) reading and outlining the textbook. They knew that the task was not just to do assignments the teacher gave but to master the subject. They said they worked really hard to get a feeling for the entire scope of the subject. So when the teacher was teaching and explaining chapter two, they had already at least skimmed the first ten chapters and knew how chapter two fit in to the big picture. At the time of a test or near the end of the semester while everyone else was cramming, they went to a movie to relax because they had already mastered the material. The time to cram is before you get the material in class--at the beginning of the semester--rather than at the end.
It is important for you to try to keep in mind how a certain subject will fit into your life, your interests, and your goals. You will be tempted to think that some general education classes have nothing to do with your real life. But the older you get, whether it is helping your children with their homework or expanding your knowledge in your specific field, you will see that the narrow categories we divide learning into overlap and apply to each other much more than we usually think. The more you want to learn for the sake of learning, or the more you decide to do well in a course you are sure you will not pursue as a major, the better you will do, the more you will enjoy learning.
Our theology teaches us that our goal should be to learn everything there is to learn. It's just
that we usually get to start (thank heaven) with the things we are most interested in. The older you
get the more you should become interested in more and more things. Set now the goal of continuing
your education every day of your life, whether that is through a hobby, courses, on-the-job training,
learning with your children at home, or personal reading. Why else have we received the injunction
to read the scriptures and write in our journals? Life-long learning (I'm talking about the eternities
here) is the order of the universe. Now is a good time to learn to love it.
Learning and the Education Game
Grades measure your ability to play what I call the education game: to follow the mechanical direction your teacher has outlined for acquiring knowledge. In the education game, you figure out what your teacher wants and you give that to her. But let's face it, grades in our system often do not measure effort. They measure accomplishment, and your grade may not reflect the accomplishment in a class; you may have acquired the skill or knowledge in a previous class. You may be just naturally smart.
So, if grades measure your skill in the education game, what measures your skill in learning? The degree of your goodness and happiness. I know it is a bold assertion to say that people who are the best at learning are the happiest. It certainly does not mean they are protected from trouble. And please note, I did not say, people who know the most or have the most degrees. Some of the people who know the most in terms of academic subjects are the least happy, the least wise. Some of the best people have little academic training, but they have learned. Generally speaking, though, the more you know how to learn and how to love learning the happier you will be.
What is the goal of a formal education? Certainly increased earning capacity is a factor, as is being able to get a job that interests you. But I make now another bold assertion: the principal goal of your formal education should be to make you better at learning and to give you a taste for knowledge. The real measure of the success of your education will come not in gaining a better-paying job. Money, may, in fact, be down right detrimental to your learning. The real question is How will your education help you approach new challenges?
I give you a very mundane personal example. Except for seventh grade shop, I have never had a woodworking class, but I teach woodworking on campus. How did I gain the knowledge, skill, and experience to be qualified to do that? My formal education taught me how to learn on my own, and, when I set the goal of learning furniture building, I read and read, and practiced and practiced. By analogy, I am suggesting that the real mark of a good education is how good a teacher you will be in Primary ten years from now. What will be your attitude toward your children's school assignments? How will you tackle an assignment on the job you know relatively little about? What steps will you go through to cope when you learn your daughter has leukemia?
You have already proven yourself to be a good student or you wouldn't be in college. But in spite of your success, chances are your study habits are not what you want them to be. You probably got by some high school or even some college assignments or courses on a wing and a prayer. You probably have learned some specific things about how you could be a good student. Next time you write in your journal, make a list of them. Pretend your younger brother or sister is starting high school, and they come to you to ask for specific advice on how to succeed. What--not from theory, but from your own practical knowledge--do you know that will help them be a good student? Don't wait for them to ask. Write them a letter and tell them. In so doing you will articulate some principles you will want to use this semester to be a better student.
In short, I am suggesting that the beginning of this semester is a great time to reconceive of
your role as a student, to look at your past performance in learning and playing the education game
and to set your sights a little higher for the future.
Some Tips about Playing the Education Game
For all the lofty sentiment I have expressed in which I have idealized learning over the education game, I want now to give you some specific tips I have learned from my many years as a student and as a teacher.
1. Take your learning seriously. Read how to study books. Ask successful teachers and students how they succeed at the game (you may not want to use those terms). Go to the learning assistance labs. Take courses that hone your learning skills (reading, test taking, writing, note taking, typing, computing).
2. Never miss class. Never. Class is the best study time available. Class time is the time to master material. You may have to attend your grandmother's funeral or to meet your missionary coming home, but those are the only times you should miss class. Check with the teacher before you miss, but don't say "Are we doing anything important in class the day I must miss?" Most teachers construe this as an insult, and you could rephrase your query something like this: "What will I miss?" Usually students miss class because they are not prepared to attend. They know they will do poorly on the quiz for the day or they will not know the answer if the teacher calls on them. No matter. Go anyway. Flunk the quiz. If called on, say, "I don't know. I didn't do the assignment." Such a response takes humility. But if you miss class you will feel guilty. You will not want to go the next time. You will start to hate the course and the teacher and yourself for hating them. Just go to class. No matter what. It's the least you can do. And the humility of going when you do not feel like going will help your confidence.
3. Write your own tests. Anticipate tests. Teachers may give you study sheets. Text books help by giving study questions and key terms. Ask the teacher what kind of test it will be. And then write your own test questions. The more you do this the better you will get, and you will be able to guess 90% of the questions. Practice taking tests in the form they will be given by the teacher. For example, if it is to be an essay test, write essays to study.
4. Write to learn. Keep a scholastic journal in which you talk to yourself as if to a friend. Try to explain concepts, express frustrations, plan strategies. You will be surprised that writing is not just for papers; as you express your feelings, frustrations, and plans, you will learn immensely.
5. Use note cards. They can contain vocabulary, test questions, summaries of notes in class. Carry them with you and review before and after class, when standing in line. Ask a friend to quiz you (you have the questions written on one side, the answer on the other.) Sit down with your cards, shuffle them and take a test. Write the answers out on a piece of paper. Go back through with a red pen, turning the cards over and correcting your answers. You will learn what you know and what you do not know. Separate the cards with the material you have mastered from those you need to work more on.
6. See tests as games. My thirteen year old son, who is not a sterling scholar, was recently excited about his karate green belt test. I asked him why he was enthusiastic. He explained that it was because he felt confident, proud of what he knew and could do. When you see a test as a game, it ceases to be intimidating.
7. Learn by teaching. If you can explain a concept to someone else, you probably understand it. Though group study can often degenerate into a social hour, good group study can be invaluable. But it shouldn't be a substitute for individual study. Find someone you can teach and you will learn. Even though I had a masters degree in English, I really learned grammar and syntax when I had to teach a course in it.
8. Form study habits and keep with them. Study the same subject at the same time and in same
place every day. That place is probably not in your dorm (too much distraction) or on your bed (too
much association with sleep). Be creative in finding effective places to study.
John H. Williams of Pepperdine University shares with his students early in the semester his
perception of the qualities, attitudes and behaviors of students at various grade levels. This
description, rather than mere numeric cutoffs for various grades, should help you understand teachers'
(including my) expectations, values, and standards. I quote from Williams' article in The Teaching
Professor (Aug/Sep 93) the description of the A and the C student, adding in places my own
emendations . I have authored a parallel description of the B student.
The "A" Student--An Outstanding Student
Attendance: "A" students have virtually perfect attendance. Their commitment to the class resembles that of the teacher.
Preparation: "A" students are prepared for class. They always read the assignment. Their attention to detail is such that they occasionally catch the teacher in a mistake.
Curiosity: "A" students show interest in the class and in the subject. They look up or dig out what they don't understand. The often ask interesting questions of make thoughtful comments.
Retention: "A" students have retentive minds. They are able to connect past learning with the present. They bring a background with them to class.
Attitude: "A" students have a winning attitude. They have both the determination and the self- discipline necessary for success. They show initiative., They do things they have not been told to do.
Talent: "A" students have something special. It may be exceptional intelligence and insight. It may be unusual creativity, organizational skills commitment--or a combination thereof. These gifts are evident to the teacher and usually to the other students as well.
Results: "A" students make high grades on tests--usually the highest in the class. Their work is a pleasure to grade. When a teacher reads their essays, he may learn things he had not
The "B" Student--A Good, Above Average Student
Attendance: "B" students may occasionally miss class. When they do, they get from a fellow student the information and assignments. They do not wait for or ask the teacher to compensate for their absence.
Preparation: "B" students are usually prepared for class, but their preparation may sometimes be superficial. Though they almost always have completed the assignment, occasionally they have not taken all the time on it they should. They sometimes do not invest two hours out of class for every hour in class. Sometimes they have had time to read a story or poem only once, or, for example, they may not always have a rough draft of a paper that meets all the requirements they know it should meet.
Attitude: "B" Students have good attitudes toward learning and toward the class. They are almost always "with" the class. Only occasionally do they slip in their winning attitude. Talent: "B" students are talented and hard-working. They may be very good in intelligence, insight, organizational skill and commitment, but they sometimes have difficulty combining these attributes.
Results: "B" students make good comments, get above average grades on tests and papers. They are students other student look up to. Sometimes their scores are among the highest, but
sometimes their scores dip down near average. They know the material well, though they
may not have thoroughly mastered it. While their papers always meet the assignment, they do
not always sparkle with fresh insight and expertise.
The "C" Student--An Average or Typical Student
Attendance: "C" students miss class frequently. They put other priorities ahead of academic work. In some cases health or constant fatigue renders them physically unable to keep up with the demands of high-level performance.
Preparation: "C" students prepare their assignments consistently but in a perfunctory manner. Their work may be careless or sloppy. At times it is incomplete or late.
Attitude: "C" students are not visibly committed to the class. They participate but without enthusiasm. Their body language often expresses boredom--they may doze in class or spend time talking to others about unrelated topics.
Talent: "C" students vary enormously in talent. Some have exceptional ability but show undeniable signs of poor self-management or bad attitudes. Others are diligent but simply average in academic ability.
Results: "C" Students obtain mediocre or inconsistent results on tests. They have some concept of what is going on but clearly have not mastered the material.
Still More on Attendance
You should never miss class. There are occasions when you must miss: severe illness or family emergencies. Certainly you should not miss class simply because you don't feel like going. Not being prepared is not a good reason for missing; missing will only add to your guilt and make it harder to come next time. At the very least you will miss important intelligence. Going to class, even if you must confess that you are not prepared, starts you on the path of repentance. Such humility is preferable to the shame you feel at staying away.
The best students always come to class because they know that class time is the best time to study course material. Think of class as the time to begin your mastery of skills and texts. Ideally, you will come to class having read the assignment, having thought about it, and being ready to contribute through active discussion and questioning.
What should you do if you must miss class? Tell the teacher in advance. At least leave me a message at my office (356-1469). Contact a fellow student in advance, tell her you will miss, and ask if she can get handouts and take notes for you. Then, after class, call her and get the information. Do not fall into the mental trap of thinking it is the teacher's responsibility to keep you current. Never ask any teacher, "Are we going to do anything important in class today?" Teachers are egoists enough to think everything they do in class is important. If you are with the course and the teacher, you will think so too.
Along that line, I pledge to you my best efforts. Attendance is, in fact, a covenant. You pledge to come prepared and willing to be taught, and in return I pledge to make attendance worth your while by having stimulating, engaging activities planned for our time together. Usually we have a great time learning and trying to accomplish together the objectives of the course.
All that I have said is wonderfully idealistic. It seems almost a shame to be so crass as to
debase ivory theory with application and policy. But, alas, we live in a quantitative as well as a
qualitative world, and some understand numbers and points better than they can understand mere
I conclude with an acknowledgment that the advice I offer you is in some ways idealistic. I did not see my education, until relatively late in my scholastic career, as a job. I am just now beginning to see the spiritual and eternal ramifications of a healthy life-long love of learning. The advice on playing the education game is more practical, and I did learn those lessons the hard way. I offer this advice, even if somewhat idealistic, in hopes that it will help you succeed. I wish someone had sat me down and shared some of these ideas with me my first couple years of college.
My parting words will be an anecdote, a confession of an early academic failure. I told you
that I thought faith was the first principle of being a good student. I want now to assert that
repentance is also an important aspect, and it doesn't matter what mistakes you have made in your
schooling if you want to do better. The semester after my mission was a terrible time of personal
trauma for me for reasons I won't go into. My GPA that semester was abysmal. I got a D and a
couple C's. I could not write the research paper on Heart of Darkness for my English 251 class. I
hated the book and the assignment. I secured from the teacher an incomplete in exchange for a
promise that I would write another paper. I never did. The I became an F. I later squared my life
around and retook the class. I now teach Heart of Darkness and love it. And I have sympathy for
students whose personal problems interfere with their scholastic lives. My point is this: These ideals
about education may seem harder than they sound, but even if you fail or have failed, you can turn
things around. You can succeed. I wish you well. If you ever want to talk further about these ideas,
I would be glad to talk to you.