Ready To Learn: What Makes A Great Student

We sat in the theater of the student center, six professors representing English, math, sociology, education, media studies and journalism. We sat awaiting the questions from a roomful of freshman students-to-be.

Across the country, young students - mostly 18- and 19-year-olds - are going through this annual rite of college initiation before starting a new phase of their life in earnest in a few weeks. It's called freshman orientation.

Our presence as faculty members was just one component of freshman orientation at Southern Connecticut State University, just one manifestation of the university's desire for the experience of its incoming freshmen to be a successful one.

In many schools throughout the nation, a significant number of freshmen will not return for their sophomore year. So what better group to meet and talk with them than those of us who will be their teachers?

There were questions about attendance and exams, about how to declare your major, what happens if you miss class, whether you are expected to know everything, what happens if you get sick and how much reading is expected.

Perhaps the most interesting question was this: What attributes would we use to describe the ideal student? I provided my description based on a student I had nearly 10 years ago and whom, interestingly enough, I heard from several weeks ago by e-mail. She was a journalism major but is now a teacher of English and journalism in northern California and looking to begin advising a school newspaper.

She was one of my all-time best students, not just for the grades she earned, but for the following ideal student attributes:
  1. Motivation. She was highly motivated and enthusiastic. She exuded confidence that if she didn't know something, she was willing to learn it.
  2. Openness. She was receptive to new concepts and ideas. The mistake new students make is to stick to what they learned from previous teachers or life experiences. In college, it is important for students to be open to views that run contrary to their comfort level or way of doing things.
  3. Punctuality. She was in class on time. Students should understand that although each professor is different with regard to attendance policies, there is a basic rule: You must attend. Skipping class or coming late is never a good thing.
  4. Engagement. She was an active learner, meaning she asked questions, initiated discussions in a way that raised the bar for others. It is not enough to just be present; the mind and spirit must also be engaged.
  5. Preparedness. She always came with assignments completed. She was ready to learn.
  6. Ability to overcome setbacks. There was an occasion when she submitted a paper that missed the mark and her grade reflected it. She did not sulk. She did not panic. We discussed it, she determined what I was looking for, and the next time, the paper was on the mark.
  7. Giving more, not less. She did not just meet the average requirements of the class; she did that added bit of research or writing or interviewing to make her work stand out.
Teaching is a noble profession. It comes with its highs and lows, its exultations and frustrations. We teachers try to reach our students and help them take the first steps toward their dreams and goals. We don't get rich doing it, but we do, overall, get a great deal of satisfaction. Truth be told, we want all our students to succeed. The reality is that some will fail, despite our efforts.

Still, we strive to do the best we can.

After that, it's in each student's hands.

Frank Harris III is chairman of the journalism department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. His column appears every Monday. He can be reached at .

This article was published in the Hartford Courant, August 10, 2007 and is posted here with the permission of the author.