Ask the grumpies: What makes an ideal student?

Femme Frugality asks:

What are the qualities in your ideal student? Where’s the line between being a good student and being a kiss-ass?

There’s no such thing as a kiss-ass in the grumpy nation.   A good student is excited about the material and about learning and isn’t concerned about grades, just doing a good job, being responsible, polite, and understanding the material in the class.  Enthusiastic students are often labeled kiss-asses as if it is a bad thing, but we’re here to tell you that enthusiasm for learning is never a bad thing, even if it forces you to go to graduate school and perhaps even become a professor.  So stay bright-eyed and respectful, we will not think less of you, even if your classmates are secretly jealous and try to pull you down.

#2 adds:

Come to class, look attentive, don’t sleep or text.  Make some reasonable effort on all assignments.  Don’t ask for exceptions to the rules.  Don’t give me presents or try to be friends, it’s weird.  (#1 says:  I do not mind presents from my international students whose cultures suggest gifts for all professors after the holiday break, but only *after* the class is over.  I have a nice collection of New Years red ribbons, which are entirely appropriate, especially when all your first semester professors have one.)

The students that stand out in my mind were really interested in the topic of the class and found something to fascinate them.  Also, intelligence.  Smart ones are better.  (#1 notes:  even if you’re not smart, hard work will *make* you smarter, at least in my classes.)  Respectfulness (not obsequiousness) and good writing will help.  I will have a soft spot for you if you volunteer for an in-class demo, but you don’t have to.

Grumpy academic readers, what makes your ideal student?

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19 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: What makes an ideal student?”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    Actually, one of my favorite students was someone who did pretty poorly in the class. Mr. Pleasant came to class in a good mood, made an effort, and was a lot of fun to have in class…both for me and his classmates. He wasn’t a smart-ass, just a naturally good-natured person. This is when I was teaching geology, and he joked to me in the second or third week that he’d considered coming to class and pretending to be a creationist. He also admitted he’s glad he didn’t because he was afraid it would’ve set us off on the wrong foot. (I’m also sure this is the student who, in evals, wrote that the best way to perform better in class would be to have a brain transplant.) :-D

    Really, I know not everything I teach is going to excite someone. Heck, I was even bored a good chunk of the way through school. I’m much more about the good attitude. Now, if someone asks me to write them a recommendation, I would need more than that. But as long as we can get through the day and still get along, I’m good with that. I’ve had smart students who were huge PITAs, and I’d rather have Mr. Pleasant any day.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      For the most part, any student who works hard in my classes is going to get a B, just based on how I structure the points (homework is a large %, and they can check their answers on the homework in office hours if they’ve completed it). But generally if they work that hard, they end up doing pretty well on the exams too. (I have had a small number of “global thinkers” who I pray at the end of the semester will at least get a C so they don’t have to retake the class. It’s weird how they often get the hard stuff right just magically, but cannot do anything that involves following a list of steps, even when they can have that list of steps on a sheet of notes.)

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        My mom hated this very thing about me. “She gets the complicated stuff right away…ask her to find a bottle of ketchup in the fridge, and it’s like she’s lost her mind…” I try to structure my teaching so that I give a big picture first and then the steps second, always trying to tie each step into the big picture. Despite thinking that way, it’s really hard to verbalize it satisfactorily.

        I have yet to teach a hard-core technical class using a student-centered approach, so I can’t really say how it will go. In the past, though, it seems like my approach to grading and points has made my students comparable to others, so I try just to make the class as bearable as I can for the students. :-)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I teach mostly intro required stuff.

        When I do teach one elective, anyone who doesn’t get it has already been weeded out to another major. (Global thinkers have generally been artists, dancers, the occasional English major.)

  2. rented life Says:

    I had a student this last semester who e-mailed me questions all the time. And always apologized. I said don’t apologize, I’d rather you ask me questions and get it right than not ask. But the apologies made me wonder….has student been chastised for asking questions before? My favorite students aren’t always the best students, but the ones who care, or have good energy (in speech class, if you’re supportive of your peers, I like you, if you’re a judging ass, get out.)

    But a couple of my favorite students weren’t the best, it was just that they brought a dynamic to the class that kept things moving, relaxed and sometimes provided the right distraction that I could still use to teach. Mind you, I don’t get one of those every class or every semester.

    I don’t know if this counts as a kiss-ass, but the students who set out with a religious agenda that they *must* share with me throughout the semester annoys the crap out of me. (any religious agenda–atheists can be just as frustrating as the kid who told me he hopes I don’t wait to long to have children because research shows I’ll clearly be an incomplete woman without that.) They always come up to me like we’re sharing some big true secret together. Dude, I don’t care. I just care about your outlines and if you did the assignment right.

    • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

      Weird! What do you teach that people would feel compelled to share their *religion* with you? Clearly I haven’t taken those classes ;)

      • rented life Says:

        Usually public speaking, however this semester I had an atheist that found a way to bring up his hate for Christianity (and all relgion really) in media theory…despite the lack of relevance. I couldn’t, still can’t, understand the connections he was making to the theories and how Christians are “full of bullshit.” (yeah, direct paper quote.)

    • Funny about Money Says:

      Freshman comp will bring out the religious nuts. You have to structure assignments carefully so classmates have as little latitude as possible in selecting topics. Otherwise you’ll be inundated with diatribes and jeremiads on religion, gun rights, abortion, and any other topic you really don’t want to hear about.

  3. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

    It’s been ages since I taught anything (the last was Immunology as a grad student in 1998) but I agree that there’s no such thing as a kiss-ass as long as they’re not being fakely-flattering. If they want to learn, that’s just pure awesomeness, even if it is to get the best score to get them into med school ;)

    I loved that when I went to college, it was OK to be genuinely interested in stuff and even talking about it with your friends was cool. I was always having to hide that in high school. I am so sad that people still have to deal with that crap in college. :(

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s one really nice thing about the Tech schools. Even at my elite undergrad it was difficult finding people wanting to have intellectual discussions (outside of the math major– math majors are awesome everywhere). It was all about boys and movie stars and clothes and so on (with girls)… and feelings and emotions and silly philosophy kinds of stuff (with boys). Oh, and sex… lots of sex talk.

      It was a little disappointing. But it’s nice being in a career where it’s ok to be an intellectual nerd. I like talking about work stuff.

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        Wow, I had no idea my experience was *that* rare. I mean, I love boys and movie stars and clothes too, but I liked science just as much :)

        We did have a rule at our house dinners that there was no “nerd talk” during dinner, which forced us to talk about something else, and that was kind of nice too. (Since we got our fill of nerd talk otherwise.)

  4. Leah Says:

    Honestly, all I want from students is to listen and legitimately try. The learned helplessness really bugs me (“I don’t get it!” “Don’t get what? Show me specifically what is confusing” “All of it!”). But I definitely don’t need perfection. I do appreciate my higher achieving students because it sometimes gives me a chance to really be science-oriented with them. I’m hoping to do some differentiation in terms of challenging my more advanced students this next year.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Congrats on the job!

      Differentiation is extra work and not easy, but it is so wonderful for the kids.

      • Leah Says:

        Thanks! And I’ve heard some great ways to differentiate for older students who can work more independently. My favorite idea is the “science toybox.” The idea being that, if your students have mastered the lesson, you don’t just have to make them keep getting more difficult on that particular topic. Instead, you can give them time to explore. If there are computers, that means encouraging kids to listen to TED talks, read NASA, etc (the teacher provides a toybox of links for the student). All the student has to do is write up where they went, why they picked it, and what they learned.

        In a classroom without extra computers, students can use an actual science toybox with interesting reading, logic puzzles, and games.

        I really liked the teachers who presented this idea, and they said it helped give students motivation to be “done” (as they’re not graded on struggling with harder stuff) while also keeping them occupied and giving time to do remedial instruction on a topic with students who need a little more help.

  5. femmefrugality Says:

    Thanks so much, everyone, for all your input! Will be sharing…it’s nice to have professors’ perspectives. I think I’m on the right track from what you’re saying. :) Not trying to be heady; if there was anything I did that was contrary to what you all said, I would be sure to change it.

  6. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I have had a small number of “global thinkers” who I pray at the end of the semester will at least get a C so they don’t have to retake the class. It’s weird how they often get the hard stuff right just magically, but cannot do anything that involves following a list of steps, even when they can have that list of steps on a sheet of notes.

    Are you really saying that you’d rather have students who can follow a list of steps than students with the ability to grasp the big picture, think globally, and intuitively grasp the difficult concepts of your field? Cause I’d trade a dozen of the former for one of the latter.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      *IF* they could do that, they wouldn’t be barely getting Cs. We’re talking about things like being able to do a ttest or a normal curve. But maybe just randomly getting part of a ttest question right via intuition.

  7. Funny about Money Says:

    Just sit still, be quiet, pretend to pay attention, and don’t talk while I’m talking. That’s all I ask.

    Oh. It would be good if you could read the syllabus, too. And maybe not try to turn in those papers you wrote for Soc. 101 and your junior-year high-school English course on topics that have nothing to do with the assignments. That would be nice.

    My ideal student: at least 25 years old, has a measurable IQ, and has found some credible reason to be in a college classroom.


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