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.
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.
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.