Seeing students doing their best is a constant drive for educators.

Some students have the determination to achieve top results, while others need a little more encouragement along the way. Of course, every student is different, but there are some key traits that are common in brilliant students. And by brilliant, we’re not just talking about the high-achievers. Dr Rachel Hogg, a Lecturer at Charles Sturt University in the School of Psychology, shares her insights into the qualities that set the best learners apart and the ways educators can encourage them in all students.

1. Thriving from experiences of failure

Failure is a reality for everyone, but students face it daily. “If you study for any period of time, at some point something, like a grade, will not be as good as you want it to be,” says Dr Hogg. “This happens to even the strongest students, and I think the capacity to engage with failure is a really critical thing for all students.”

So how do we encourage students to bounce back from failure?

“Feedback is really important,” says Dr Hogg. “I have always tried to encourage rather than demoralise students with my feedback. I take the position that every student in my classroom is trying. Some of them might not be, but by taking the position that they’re in class to do their best, they live up to those expectations you have for them.”

2. Knowing themselves

Top students know how they learn best. When you think about it, all learning should help us understand more about ourselves. “If you are aware of what you need to succeed, you can protect yourself from things that don’t facilitate your success,” says Dr Hogg. “Self-insight is really important when managing study commitments, failure and success – learning from all of these experiences require it.”

This is a quality that educators can share with all learners. “Have a reflective component to your teaching,” says Dr Hogg. Begin your subjects by asking students to reflect on the values that guide their approach to study. This is a great starting point for students to understand their strengths, weaknesses and more. Using this as a foundation, educators can then give students more moments to reflect and reevaluate. This helps them stay on track.

3. Balancing help-seeking with independent learning

While independent learners tend to do well, it’s the students who know when they need to ask for help that really succeed. “For students who work independently (often the strongest), there will come a time where they need help and those that seek help have an advantage,” says Dr Hogg. She knows that getting a handle on these skills while studying sets students up for life.

"Self-sufficiency is really important. I think it helps students succeed in their study, but it also helps them professionally when they connect with other people.”

Educators can really lead the way here. “Academics can encourage this by being approachable,” says Dr Hogg. “Having humanity in the room is a really important and undervalued thing. We are often under so much pressure that the connection is sometimes devalued.” These connections are helpful lessons that let students work on inter-personal skills they need in the workforce when dealing with colleagues and supervisors.

Quote -humanity

4. There isn’t always a definitive answer

Students tackle big issues, especially when learning at a university level. 
They are dealing with complex concepts and the best students feel comfortable approaching topics from different angles. “Complexity can be overwhelming,” says Dr Hogg. “One way to get past that feeling of being overwhelmed is to simplify things, and other times we need to sit with complexity. There’s always going to be a lot that we don’t know. There are contradictions in some of the things that I teach, and the strongest students can sit with ambiguity and embrace it.”

This is where Dr Hogg encourages teachers to remind students that educators don’t always have the answers. “If you can engage with those questions and know you don’t have to find a single answer, you open yourself up to some really fascinating intellectual territory.”

"If you can engage with those questions and know you don’t have to find a single answer, you open yourself up to some really fascinating intellectual territory."

5. Taking initiative

There are no surprises here.
Initiative is one of those qualities that helps all people, no matter their level of learning. Dr Hogg puts this down to being an active learner, and there are ways that she pushes her students to take initiative. “Leave open-ended questions in lectures or tutorials for students to seek out answers for themselves,” she says. “Students might think that I have the answer and it’s their job to find it, but a lot of time this isn’t the case. Sometimes there are debates and questions that I put to students that I don’t have the answer to. Nobody has the answer. That’s why we’re talking about it.”

This approach also highlights the power of our young learners. “Students that are coming through now are potentially the ones who will solve these problems,” she says.

Quote model students

6. Forward thinking

Just like students who take initiative, forward thinkers see great results. 

“The best students I teach are on the front foot. They are looking to see what doors are going to open. They’re already thinking ahead of current theory and practice, looking at the workforce and what kind of skills they need,” says Dr Hogg.

To inspire this quality in all students, Dr Hogg takes a real-world approach. “It’s easy to lock down on this focus for your students where all they can think about is ‘how do I pass the assignment?’, and they stop thinking about ‘what do I actually need to know?’. We have to work hard to ensure we’re connecting what we’re doing to practice. Students should get to a place where they look at the things you’re doing in the classroom as more than academic exercises. They are a part of the skill base that the person needs to succeed in their profession.”

7. Being adaptable

The world is changing at a rapid pace, which is why this quality is so important.

“Adaptability is critical, not just because you are going to need it to thrive in an educational context, but it’s also essential when thinking about success in the workforce.” Recognising diversity and responding well to change is a necessity for all of us. Dr Hogg believes that teachers can encourage this quality in students by starting with themselves. “We are the model for our students, and if I’m penalising myself every time I make a mistake, what does that tell my students when they do the same?” She advises that a healthy relationship with yourself is a must.

If you can ride out periods of self doubt and feel ok with the possibility of failure, you become a more adaptable person.

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