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Attributes of successful students

Two students studying test tubes in the science lab
Federico Zaccareo and Olivia Hodges, ready to learn: successful students take control of their learning

Ensuring our students are successful is all about enabling them to develop strategies, attitudes and practical skills for effective learning, as Ben Reeves explains.

We all know what a successful student looks like. They enjoy learning, are well-prepared and achieve high grades. They are, in a word, successful. The interested reader might recognise there’s a tautological problem with this, though: successful students are successful. To understand what really makes a successful student we need to be a bit more specific about the range of attributes they bring to their learning.

Successful students turn up. I don’t just mean they turn up punctually to class – although they are punctual – but that they turn up in mind as well as in body, keen and ready to learn. They are prepared for class. Preparation involves everything from having completed preliminary homework to remembering to bring their calculator to being intellectually engaged with the task at hand.

Strategies for learning

Successful students are aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and motivate themselves to engage in their learning and improve their knowledge and skills. There are many strategies they use to help them learn independently, including the following.

  • They are active listeners in class. Active listening involves fully concentrating on what others in class – teachers and peers – are saying. It involves much more than hearing what is said. As active listeners, successful students actively engage with others, for example, making eye contact, responding with relevant questions, elaboration and summaries and – crucially – without becoming distracted. This does two things: it stimulates the teacher or peer who is speaking to engage with the student and it keeps the student switched on. In other words, successful students really think about what is being said in class.
  • They practise the skills they have acquired. By practising, successful students maintain current skills and consolidate new skills. Whether it takes on average 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at a skill, as Malcolm Gladwell in 2008 claimed in Outliers, it remains the case that ‘practise makes perfect.’
  • They mentally summarise and take notes about what they have heard, read or seen. By mentally summarising or taking notes, successful students process and interact with information rather than simply copying and pasting it. Summarising or taking notes stimulates students to: analyse and assess information, extract and combine relevant details, identify any weaknesses, inaccuracies, omissions or biases in the information, and relate their newly acquired understanding to their existing knowledge and experience in a way that is meaningful to them.
  • They set specific short‑term goals for themselves and monitor their performance for signs of progress. To do this, they use metacognition (knowledge about themselves as a learners), strategies that are effective and available, and knowledge of the task they are undertaking. According to Metacognition and Self‑regulated Learning, a report from Evidence for Learning, metacognition is all about planning, monitoring and evaluation. In planning, successful students ask themselves: what is the goal of my task, what kind of information do I need, and how much time will I need? In monitoring, they ask themselves: do I have a clear understanding of what I am doing, am I moving towards the learning goal, and do I need to change strategies? In evaluating, they ask themselves: have I reached the learning goal, what worked and didn’t work, and what would I change for next time?
Attitudes for learning

In applying these strategies, successful students also undertake a self‑evaluation of their methods and attribute causation – that is, they understand that it’s the methods they used that caused their learning. Crucially, this is all about their attitude as a self-regulated learner. Put simply, successful students believe they control their learning, and actively take control of their learning.

One of the most important characteristics of successful students is that they have a growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The new psychology of success. What is this ‘growth mindset’? Put simply, we all have a mixture of different conceptions about ourselves and our abilities, usually a combination of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is one where we think our ability is fixed. When we have a fixed mindset we tend to avoid challenges where we are likely to fail because we think we ‘lack the ability.’ In this mindset, we think effort is pointless and feedback when we get things wrong is negative. A growth mindset is one where we think our ability can be improved. When we have a growth mindset we tend to look for challenges as a way to improve on the path to mastery. We think effort is worthwhile and feedback when we get things wrong is positive as it guides our improvement.

Student studying at a desk
Annabel Schmidt, focussed on learning: one of the most important characteristics of successful students is that they have a growth mindset

According to Dweck, a growth mindset isn’t just something that students have, it’s something that they work on. This is because we have different mindsets about different things: we might have a fixed mindset about, say, swimming – ‘I will never be a good swimmer’ – and a growth mindset about, say, visual arts – ‘My skills really improved after I started carrying a journal with me and drawing everyday life.’

Dweck also notes that, while effort is important, students with a growth mindset also need a repertoire of strategies and the readiness to seek input from teachers and others when they’re stuck.

Practical skills for learning

Finally, successful students do a variety of basic practical things.

They record assignments and homework tasks as well as other school and out-of-school commitments in their record book. This is not only about time management and being organised but also about being accountable and taking control of their learning. Being organised enables them to complete assignments and homework tasks by the due date without feeling rushed or stressed, which means they’re in a state of mind that’s conducive to learning.

They establish and follow a study routine, with appropriate rewards when they complete tasks. This enables them to maintain balance in their life – focusing on their learning and cocurricular interests, relaxing with friends and the like – and to get a good night’s sleep.

They also create a physical study environment – at home and at school – that’s conducive to learning.

Helping students build their strategies, attitudes and practical skills

Teachers at Wesley are enabling students to develop self-regulation and knowledge about themselves as learners by investigating specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning progress.

The teacher research is informed by the understanding that one approach does not fit all. As Evidence for Learning’s Tanya Vaughan and Susannah Schoeffel note in ‘Building students’ metacognition and self-regulation,’ ‘What (metacognition) looks like at different stages will vary considerably – so expect a wide range and adjust your techniques to meet students at their point of need.’

The teacher research is also informed by the understanding that self-regulated learning and metacognition are context dependent, so the strategies used by a student for, say, upper primary art might be quite different to those of a student in senior secondary maths. To complicate matters, according to Vaughan and Schoeffel’s Metacognition and Self‑regulated Learning report, ‘A student who shows strong self-regulated learning and metacognitive competence in one task or subject domain may be weak in another, and metacognitive strategies may or may not be effective, depending on the specific task, subject, or problem tackled.’

Student explaining and teacher listens
Head of Design and Technology, Gayathri Wijesekera, confers with Nathan Ashdown: successful students actively engage with others

To address that complexity, a team of Wesley teachers has been working since 2019 on micro-projects that address ‘owning your learning’ to identify specific metacognitive strategies that are effective in enhancing the learning and engagement of students at various year levels on various kinds of task across various subject domains.

What is success?

I began this article with a tautology – a successful student is a student who is successful – and the claim that they tend to achieve high grades, but it’s worth pointing out that in truth a successful student is someone who is able to learn and take control of their learning – about swimming or drawing, literacy or numeracy, cooperation or kindness.

And if you think the attributes I’ve described here only apply to older students, think again. An observational study by David Whitebread and Penny Coltman from the University of Cambridge, published in ZDM Mathematics Education, found that children as young as three engage in metacognitive and self-regulatory behaviours, from setting goals to checking their understanding. That’s why we’re focused on enabling every student from ECLC to Senior Schoolat Wesley to develop their attributes as successful students.

Ben Reeves is a College Teaching Practice Leader and Philosophy teacher at Wesley’s St Kilda Road Campus. This article was first published in the April edition of Lion, Wesley’s community magazine.

Read Metacognition and Self‑regulated Learning on the best available research to offer school leaders and teachers about teaching metacognition and self-regulated learning.