April 20, 2024

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What Do the Best University Students Do?

By Victor Chijioke and Joy Uzor

The best varsity students do several things differently than the average student. And every earnest student perhaps wants to know them. But before we answer the question of what the best students do, we must determine whether the traditional schooling system adequately serves the needs of this changing world. 

The traditional education system has flaws. Although this refrain has been repeated too often, it remains true. For one, the system makes students think that knowledge is static. This is reflected in how infrequently courses and curricula change to teach students the skills they need to be valuable in this time of increasing technology and globalization. In many cases, the need for education that teaches how to get in-demand skills hits hard on the students when they plunge into the deep end of the sea called the job market upon graduation.

The perpetuation of the one-size-fits-all approach, where students’ diverse interests and learning styles are ignored in the search for “superior minds,”  hinders functional education in a world that increasingly calls for inclusivity and self-directed learning instead of do-as-I-say. The reliance on the regurgitation approach to testing, dubbed “la cram la pour,” encourages cramming instead of critical thinking and creativity. And teacher-centred learning, the hallmark of formal schooling, impedes active learning and collaboration. All these flaws show that for any judgment of best students to withstand real-world scrutiny, we must apply a standard different from that of traditional schooling to determine the ‘best’ students.  

So, who are the best students? By traditional schooling standards, they are the ones who graduate with the best grades, pure and simple—just ask them how they get good grades, and you can stop reading from here on. But because education should prepare students for successful lives—and because even educators themselves admit that class grades are not a predictor of either success or real-world acuity—it would be unfair to see the best students as those with the best grades.

However, it would be safe to say that the best students are those who learn critical life skills and mindsets that help achieve that vaguely defined thing called success. Although these skills and mindsets can be learnt in school, they are not necessarily focused on in school. Sometimes, they are learnt in spite of formal education. 

American professor and author Ken Bain examines these life skills in his book What The Best College Students Do. There, he tells you to forget the late-night cramming and the pursuit of As just for the sake of it. Challenging the commonplace narrative of academic achievement, he says grades are not as important as finding your passion, understanding what makes you tick, having a drive beyond learning what is necessary to pass exams, and having a growth mindset. Through research and interviews with people who had exhibited similar traits while in school and ultimately became successful in their unique ways, the book highlights several qualities of the best students according to this new conception of what it is to be ‘best’ as a student. 

We draw examples from UNILAG’s best-graduating students to show that creativity, adaptability, and other qualities mentioned in Bain’s book matter more for success than grades. We maintain that the more these best students exhibit all of these qualities, the better their chances of success. As these qualities of best students (and others not mentioned here) have been isolated, we also believe that any student can imbibe these and become the best they can be where it truly matters—in life. With this qualification, here are what the best students do—or should do: 

1. Deep Learning:.There are three types of students based on why and how they learn: surface learners, strategic learners, and deep learners. For surface learners, their why is to get satisfactory grades, get the degree, and get out. 

Surface learners often cram before exams, scan past or practice questions, and avoid delving deeper into the course content. They cry the loudest when the lecturer sets something that tests their ability to read or practice further on a topic because their aim is not to understand. Their aim is just to survive the system. 

Strategic learners, on their part, have learning habits that are deep in some aspects and surface-level in others. The ‘whys’ of strategic learners are similar to surface learners’, only slightly different: they aim only to get the best grades. 

Most students are either surface or strategic learners, driven by external motivators—good grades or certificates. They lose their innate curiosity. They lose their ability to decide their own learning, the internal motivation and the sense of purpose that flows from it. They succumb to the pressures of school and society and may never learn anything deeply enough to become creative and inventive. 

But despite all the obstacles, some students still manage to become deep learners. Deep learners focus on understanding and applying knowledge rather than just aiming for high grades. Within UNILAG, David Akanmu, a recent graduate of Civil Engineering with a 5.0 CGPA, is an example of a student who got both academic accolades and learned deeply. 

In an interview with UnilagSun, he introduced himself how only a deep learner would: “I’m enthusiastic about learning. I like to learn and I demonstrated that in my studies. I did that outside my studies, too; I’m also very passionate about social impact. I believe my purpose on earth is essentially to contribute to the advancement of society, and as such, I did quite a number of things with my time to advance that purpose.”

Deep learners differ from strategic and surface learners. They are curious, purposeful, and want to make an impact, which drives their education. For instance, they aim for courses that could impact them rather than choosing courses for high grades. David chose a bridge design elective because he believed it was important for civil engineers to learn.

2. Adaptability and problem-solving: The best students are adaptive experts who can apply their knowledge to various situations and challenges. Unlike surface and strategic learners who end up being routine experts (experts who follow the rules in doing things but do not know how to do things differently), deep learners become adaptive experts because they learn the essence of what’s taught and see different ways to think about it and apply it. While change and complexity are the enemies of the routine expert, adaptive experts naturally love fields that involve thinking through complexity. 

This trait is evident in David’s story. In his extracurricular project with Sustainable Development Advocacy (SDA), David and his team worked on a climate justice campaign that used a new approach to solve an old problem—the problem of open defecation in the Lagos lagoon. They developed an “integrated waste management system” that converted human waste into fuel.

This is also true for Ibrahim Quadri, the best-graduating student of the Faculty of Management Sciences. His words, “The most interesting and the most challenging is management accounting because it allows you to think, unlike other aspects of accounting, where you follow standards [routines]. Management accounting is… more like you are facing different situations, and you have to think before answering the questions.” 

3. Creativity: The best students demonstrate high levels of creativity, finding innovative solutions and approaches to their work in school and outside. In academics, David demonstrates original thinking and creative problem-solving in his development of a study system that works for him and in his plans to write a book detailing his study strategies.

4. Curiosity: The best students are highly curious and constantly learn and explore new ideas and concepts. David’s passion for learning is evident in his academic success and quest for further education. He said, “What I wanted to get from school when I came to school, I’ve not achieved it. I’m going to study more.” 

The best students are lifelong learners. For them, learning doesn’t end after school at any level. Perhaps this is why they are most likely to get a promotion, do better in business, or produce that fine work of art after school—they continuously upgrade themselves! 

5. Growth Mindset: The best students don’t think their abilities or intelligence levels are fixed; they don’t think they are destined to do poorly in Maths or are innately terrible with languages. Instead, they have a can-do attitude. This attitude was captured by Babatunde Salako, the best graduating student of the College of Medicine, in his interview with UnilagSun: “I believe in something: if someone can do something, I believe I can also do it.”

Because the best students believe their abilities can improve with effort, they don’t give up easily; instead, they try harder and smarter. This is especially true for Anastacia Azuma, now the best-graduating student of the Department of English, whose grades dropped while she was in 200 level. She said why she kept at it: “I have the mindset that when I want something, I do everything to get it. I knew I had to do it; it was something I could not give up on.”

Students with a performance mindset believe their abilities are fixed. They aim to appear smart rather than grow, avoiding situations where their abilities can be tested and improved. In contrast, deep learners have a growth mindset. 

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