The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

What makes a “good” student?

This is something I’ve thought about often, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I found myself thinking about it again recently.  It’s this: what exactly does it mean to be a “good student”?

As an undergrad, we are told that “good student” (GS) = student with high grades. Therefore, to be considered a GS by my instructors, my school, granting/funding agencies, and potential future grad school advisors, I must achieve a certain level of scholastic excellence (say, > 80%) based on grades.

Yes, I know, things like extracurricular activities and hands-on experience can help a bit in some instances, but grades are either exclusively (Dean’s lists) or mostly (some scholarships, possibly future advisors) considered to be the main indicator of GS-ness. As much as I wracked my brain to think of instances where this metric would not be the primary consideration in a practical/applied context at the undergrad level, I couldn’t think of one.

As a graduate student, many of us have little to no course work. There are, therefore, very often few or no grades. There are exams (comprehensives, defenses) and tasks (proposals, reports, oral presentations, publications) that are accomplished along the way which we either pass or  fail, often with no formal recognition of having done so. GS’s at the graduate level are usually judged by whether or not they complete these tasks, but also on accompanying qualitative characteristics including: time management, productivity, interest, communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving, multitasking, leadership/management, research abilities and contributions, etc.  These things are not graded, but are emphasized when the student’s success is being evaluated by advisors, funding agencies, and employers.

All of this makes me wonder a few things:

1. Why is there such a HUGE gap between how we judge – not just judge but TRAIN – students at the undergrad level, and those at the graduate level?

2. Why does it seem like the default assumption tends to be that one’s being a GS at the undergrad level is a reliable determinate of future GS-ness at the graduate level?

3.  How many intelligent, hard-working, keen students fall through the cracks because they are “bad” at school in the traditional, structured/formal sense; i.e., they are not so great at exams or memorization, but are able to demonstrate a good grasp of the material in less structured settings. Put another way, how many students are lost because their individual learning styles are not compatible with traditional institutional styles of instruction, when they might actually have the potential to be really, really great researchers?

4. On what criteria do people (I’m thinking grad student advisors) primarily base their decisions in terms of who to take on as students in their lab? If funding (which is obviously linked to grades, at least at the M.Sc. level) was not an issue, what kind of student would you choose to work with – the one with the 4.0 GPA or the one who was able to demonstrate more practical (i.e., grad-student-like) abilities, attributes and interests?

This is a fairly personal subject for me, since, as you know, I have been told that I was “not good” at science. Based on grades alone, this assessment could be considered correct. I was also not a very strong student during the first few years of my undergrad, which should have been an additional indicator that I was not a GS.

For some reason, I wouldn’t take the hint (yeah, I’m stubborn like that).

What I know about myself now is that the way I work and learn best is not very compatible with the traditional teaching methods used in post-secondary institutions (talking head at the front of the class, scores of memorization, big exam/paper that tests everything, the end). I am, however, (close your eyes, I’m about to toot my own horn) intelligent, hard-working, creative, persistent, and excited about learning – and I know that, someday, I’ll be a good scientist, even if I was not a GS.

As a teacher, I often see students who remind me of myself, and I worry that we’ll lose them.

So, what do you think makes a good student? Your thoughts?

12 responses to “What makes a “good” student?

  1. terry wheeler March 26, 2012 at 2:58 PM

    Excellent questions! I’ll weigh in on your four from my own (perhaps cynical) perspective:
    1. There is a huge gap in judging/training between undergrad and grad because the former is r-selected [“get lots of bodies in the seats!’] and the latter is, ideally (although I can think of exceptions) K-selected [‘get the best people I can into my lab!”]. This, I think, dictates why UG courses focus WAY too much on multiple choice exams (easy to grade) and memorization (‘list three ways . . . “), than helping people learn to: SEE things, think critically, and then write it down clearly. Because that is harder.
    2. Undergrad grades are the default criterion because The System is too often lazy, and The System likes to express people as single, tangible numbers.
    3. FAR TOO MANY! and it’s a great shame.
    4. UG marks are only one of the criteria I look at, and they’re certainly not the main one. Over the course of my career as a supervisor, there has been absolutely no linear relationship between undergrad GPA and eventual performance as a “scientist”. “Research potential” is one of those intangibles that can’t just be judged by looking at a transcript.

    • TGIQ March 26, 2012 at 3:15 PM

      Thanks for chiming in, Terry. I can’t accuse you of being cynical (just observant?), because you’ve echoed my own suspicions for Qs 1-3.
      As for #4, I suspect there are a goodish number of other supervisors that know these things – I’d be curious, though, to find out how many of them actually put the knowledge into practice when taking on new students.

  2. formicidaefantasy March 26, 2012 at 8:12 PM

    I’m currently an undergrad at the University if Michigan, and my mentor advised me early on that as long as my grades made a certain cut, graduate schools (for science research) would really care about research experience and other similar experiences, as well as letters from mentors who have witnessed the research ability of the student. That’s also what I remember hearing from a grad school application info session at my REU program last summer. So I’ve always had the sense that, unlike the high school to undergrad transition, the undergrad to grad move rests more on a demonstrated ability to do things like research outside of class.

    Also, I think it is perfectly fine, and in fact beneficial, to consider grades as *one* of the primary criteria for admission to grad school because, despite some exceptions, grades are generally a decent proxy for assessing things like time management, productivity, multi-tasking, ability to function in academia, etc.

    Because of these views of mine (and several more-experienced people I have come into contact with), I have from my freshman year allowed my grades to be noticeably less than perfect and instead have focused more on research (on ants!). From my experience, REU programs seem to be okay with this approach, and I hope that grad programs will be as well!


  3. Morgan Jackson March 27, 2012 at 9:34 PM

    This is great Geek, and I’ve been mulling over my opinions on the subject all day. I fully agree with you that a lot of students with huge research potential get passed over for those with higher grades, which is a major loss to our field (and ultimately society as a whole)!

    While many GS’s go on to have long and productive academic careers, I’ve also met quite a few who found that independent research wasn’t what they were expecting (i.e. no list of answers to memorize, requiring individual thought & scientific creativity). In many cases these individuals choose to follow a different career path, which isn’t a bad thing, just important to note that some student’s goals are not academia-driven.

    Ultimately, if a student is motivated but finds themselves with lower grades, getting into a lab (or taking a field course where there’s a greater opportunity for connecting with an advisor) and gaining first-hand experience working in their field and developing personal relationships with a potential advisor will go a long ways towards getting into grad school, or even receiving a glowing letter of recommendation from their mentor. In the future when I hope to be an advisor, I think I’d gamble on someone who’s grades are average but who is dedicated, persistant and excited about research rather than assume that those with the highest grades will transition well to independent research! Of course I’m still a naive grad student without the intense demands on my time that come with being a full academic, so my priorities, strategies and expectations may change if I find less time to get to know potential students!

    • TGIQ April 3, 2012 at 2:49 PM

      I’m inclined to agree with you in terms of the kinds of students you can see yourself taking on. I suspect it could result in getting burned on occasion, but still…
      I think you’ve got some good advice for potential students here, too! Thanks!

  4. elle April 3, 2012 at 8:35 PM

    Good student? Check! To all of the above! But how does this translate into being a good job candidate when I’m competing with 200 other good students for one job? =/

    • TGIQ April 3, 2012 at 10:03 PM

      That’s a really great question, elle…and I think it deserves its own blog post. It’s something I (and I suspect most grad students) think about often. What are your thoughts on the subject?

      • elle April 3, 2012 at 11:42 PM

        Honestly, I’m back in school because the job market was so bad. But it’s still bad and I’m about to be done with this batch of school – I can’t keep going back forever (financial and mental health reasons!) but I’m not sure how to move out of academia and back into the craptacular jobs that I was working in between schools and real jobs. I’ve been on great terms with almost everyone I’ve ever worked with* and my grades have improved drastically with every transfer.

        Thankfully I’ve done most of the things on my ‘bucket list’ but haven’t found something that feels useful and pays. Perhaps that’s too much to ask, but I’d like to make a living without selling my soul. It would be nice if what I learned was put into practice as well… and I’m a generalist, so it shouldn’t be too hard, right? Hmm.

        Anyway, this post really jumped out at me because I’ve been the mediocre student who is passionate about obscure things, strange projects and boring tasks. I’ve found that it – the slipping through the cracks – transfers to the rest of non-academic life as well, however, and that’s where the frass hits the fan.

  5. Ted C. MacRae April 12, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    When I was reading the paragraph on judging GS I was thinking, “This sounds exactly like how we evaluate people in the work environment”, which GS really is training for, only instead of in a factory/marketing/retail environment it’s a research environment. It applies whether you’re talking about academia, government or industry (I know from experience in all three). I have less insight on why UG are judged strictly by grades other than to say there are a whole lot more of them and it’s probably just easier and more efficient for moving the numbers through (for better or worse).

    Interesting personal note – I was always strongly pushed towards a research/academic career by my UG/GS advisors because I had such good grades, but personally I never felt confident that I was truly capable of following that path. It’s part of the reason I decided not to pursue a Ph.D, although in retrospect I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m more than capable. Sometimes advisors see potential in students that the students themselves don’t think the have.

    What makes a good student? Somebody who can spend an afternoon with a specialist and make an observation that results in co-authorship on a publication 🙂

    • TGIQ April 19, 2012 at 7:00 PM

      Interesting stuff, Ted. I often wonder how relevant the undergrad experience is, in terms of its applicability to “real life” (regardless of where one finds oneself after school). I think you and Terry are right about it being easier to churn UGs through the system – it’s certainly not ideal, but I guess it is arguably (in some cases) more cost/time-effective (sigh).

      I think that one of the roles of a good supervisor is being able to recognize a student’s strengths and weaknesses. It stands to reason that another role is to help students figure out how to improve on the aspects that can be improved upon (and which are relevant to their futures/careers) and help them cultivate their strengths so that they stand out from the crowd in the job market. I trust my own supervisor very much in this regard – he’s been very good for my professional development.

      Lastly, you’re wonderful, but you’re off a bit: I think it’s more like, “a good FRIEND is someone who can spend an afternoon with a student and encourage her super-geeky enthusiasm by granting her the privilege of co-authorship on a publication” 🙂

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