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What Makes a Successful Student?

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China Power

What Makes a Successful Student?

The key character traits for success in a Chinese classroom could just as easily apply to the office as well.

One semester in, and we’re going back to the drawing board.

In Shenzhen, our school had some of the city’s highest achieving students, and our goal was to make them more rounded, social, and creative. We tried things like creating a daily newspaper, an English magazine, and a coffeehouse to challenge students to work together. There were clearly defined goals (increase viewership, make money), an instant feedback loop (reader response, profit), and structure/boundaries (publish everyday, don’t go bankrupt). Shenzhen High Daily was a genuine success and was recognized and read nationally. 

But we haven’t been able to repeat that success in Beijing. It’s important to help students learn to balance their newspaper roles with their heavy academic workload, but many Beijing students have continued to go to bed around two in the morning, while treating the daily as a chore. There has also too often been a lack of teamwork.

Getting this right will mean answering three key questions: What are the characteristics that define the best students? Which characteristics are the most important? How can we inculcate these characteristics in our students?

Through my experience as a student in Toronto public schools and at Yale, and as a teacher in Chinese public schools, I’d say there are certain characteristics that typically define the best students. They’re usually serious and meticulous, organized and plan ahead. They also have a balanced, diverse, and vibrant lifestyle: they study hard, but they also exercise, get fresh air, socialize with friends, converse with parents, and do what they love. And they get up early, eat three meals a day, and sleep well. In class, they listen carefully, and they ask questions. 

This is all obviously good stuff, but I’d say the three most important characteristics are self-control/discipline, focus, and patience – the best students place long-term goals over instant gratification. These three characteristics don’t just define a successful student – they also define a successful person. Students in the world’s best law and medical schools are nothing but disciplined, focused, and patient. In Texas Hold’em poker, these three characteristics distinguish the 10 percent of players who win money. In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis argues that these three characteristics are also important traits among good baseball players (those who contribute the most to a team’s wins). Shenzhen High Daily succeeded because the students there had the discipline, focus, and patience to do the job well.

So this semester, the daily newspaper has been suspended and three new policies have been introduced.

First, students will be required to write down a time chart of how they spend each day.  With this, we’ll be able to monitor how they distribute their time, and chart their progress over the semester. By forcing them to write down what they did each hour in a notebook, we’re also forcing them to be ‘present,’ as the Zen master would say. Once they become aware of how inefficiently they spend their time, they should (hopefully) exert more self-control. (This is similar to the principle of how dieticians ask clients to record daily food consumption, or how financial planners ask clients to record daily expenditures.)      

Second, we’ll be looking at the students’ class binders at the end of each week. We have a checklist of questions when we look at their binders. Are they taking notes for every class? Are their notes properly dated and titled? Are their notes legible? 

Finally, we’ve asked each teacher to start class with a short quiz of previous material.  This quiz will test if the students were paying attention and taking notes in the previous class. It’s also a convenient way to enforce punctuality and attendance.    

These three policies should produce quantifiable data to identify students’ problems and to chart their progress. These instruments also reinforce and monitor each other.  If a student is doing one of these things well, then he should be doing all of them well – with the upshot being improved academic performance.

The experiment could have profound implications for a traditional Chinese classroom, which relies on standardized tests to monitor and motivate students. Also, there’s the potential to apply our experiment to the Chinese office. Why not have employees write their daily schedules to evaluate productivity and efficiency? Why not check employees’ meeting notes for attentiveness? 

I’ll keep you posted.