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What Makes a Student Successful From a Professor's Perspective?

A professor talking to a student at an event

Navigating the college experience can be challenging, regardless of where you are in your journey. Whether you’re preparing to enter your first semester of college in the fall, or you’re in the middle of a compact summer course, it can be difficult to know how to achieve your fullest potential. 

College professors possess valuable insights into what it takes to succeed. With this in mind, we asked for advice from professors in the College of Business on what makes a student successful.

“To be perfectly honest, it's difficult to establish clear criteria for success in a college course. Pedagogical researchers have proposed things like contract-based learning where students set goals in tandem with the faculty and grades are assessed based on the extent to which they've met those goals. That's great, and in many ways, it improves on the problem of applying a standard to a very diverse group of learners, but it suffers from the lack of that standardization: can I really say two students are A students if one was advanced and did well on their advanced goals and another was remedial and did well on their remedial goals? Someone is always being under-served. Of course, at no point do people ask why this is so important for higher education, and the answer of course is that our ability to create discriminatory outcomes (e.g., a range of grades) is necessary for the labor market to extrapolate worthiness out of collegiate experiences. The tail is wagging the dog, but of course, I'd say that-- I'm a professor.

I use standardized grading. I try to be gentle with my grading and keep the stakes (high, e.g. lifetime earnings) and scope (small, e.g. 16 weeks of asynchronous online class) in mind when assessing how someone is doing in my classes. I look for two key elements when I'm assessing students: energy and engagement. Let me illustrate by example. Imagine a student who comes to class, opens a laptop, and studiously surfs the internet throughout the class time while being completely apathetic towards the material. This student will do poorly in my class due to low energy and low engagement. On the other hand, consider a student who speaks in class every day, is completely excited, but has clearly not done the reading. High energy, low engagement. A moderate grade. Similarly, you can probably recall a student who is very interested in the material and performs well but never offers anything to the classroom environment. High engagement, low energy. I don't mean to punish introverts, but this is a business school-- extraversion is correlated with success in the private sector. The very best students come, speak, are prepared, and want to be involved in the experience. If they do that, they'll succeed. I know there are a huge plethora of barriers to it, and faculty try to be sensitive to them, but in a perfect world, that's the recipe. You don't have to be a marketer or even be particularly keen on the subject to get something out of the course. Same with an English literature class, or a Geology survey course, you name it.”  - Dr. Alex Rose, Assistant Professor of Marketing


“Time Management - Spending a little bit of time each day on each class, ensuring that deadlines are met and the student does not fall behind on coursework.

Class Attendance - Not skipping classes or online lectures and asking questions and participating in lectures.

Engagement - Attending extracurricular activities related to the courses taken (club meetings, guest speakers, etc.)

Seek Help - See the tutors and instructors for help when appropriate.

Extra Credit - Take advantage of extra credit and other opportunities to learn and boost your grade.” - Chris Chatwin, Clinical Professor of Finance


“The most important part of a student's success is showing up.  The students who come to class and who attend any supplemental learning opportunities typically thrive.  They also tend to be less stressed, seem to enjoy their time at school more, and often are the first students to tell me about important and exciting life moments that are occurring. In my opinion, showing up is a very important skill to have.  Whether it is in school, after you graduate at work, or at home with your family, being present when needed is becoming lost in our society.” - Joshua Thompson, Undergraduate Program Director & Clinical Assistant Professor of Healthcare Administration


“Successful students introduce themselves to the professor early in the semester and contribute regularly to the class (e.g., make sure to speak up during classroom discussions from time to time, try to have their camera on as much as possible during Zoom class sessions, etc.). Building those relationships upfront and throughout the semester is especially helpful when they are applying for jobs later and need faculty who can write strong letters of recommendation for them.

Successful students don't just come to class, take notes, and leave, but they also take advantage of other opportunities that the college offers. They might be involved in a student club or organization, they participate in professional development activities, and they reach out to faculty to talk about their career interests and to get advice. (They also talk to their peers, which is a great way to network.) And most importantly, they meet with an academic advisor regularly.

Successful students are intentional about time management. That can be as simple as having a calendar and jotting down from the syllabus the dates of the key assignment deadlines (i.e., quizzes, exams, and papers) for the entire semester. That helps them to see the "bottleneck" weeks in their semester and how to budget the time they need in advance.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to success in college, there are strategies that can help you reach your goals. To be successful in college, it's important to have a high level of energy and engagement. Coming prepared to class, interacting with your peers and professors in a meaningful way, and maintaining a positive attitude are all great ways to increase your energy and engagement in the classroom. In addition to showing up to class and taking advantage of supplemental learning opportunities, it's also essential to build connections with professors, get involved outside of class, ask questions, and get help with classes when applicable. Time management and planning are key to keeping up with assignments and exams, and talking to advisors can provide valuable guidance on academic and career goals. By implementing these strategies, you can increase your chances of success in college and start building skills for your career.  - Dr. Alex Bolinger, Idaho Central Credit Union Endowed Professor of Management