The three secret qualities of top students

Prof. Pettigrew tells what his A+ students have in common


Aristotle, a great scholar. By Tilemahos_E on Flickr.

A blogger at Inside Higher Ed has posed a fascinating question: what is an ideal student?

Strictly speaking, there could not possibly be an ideal student any more than there could be perfect person. But the question is worth thinking about if you care about education.

I wouldn’t want to repeat the answers already on offer, so let me move the question out of the abstract just a bit and ask a similar question: what have my very best students had in common?

To answer this question, I turned to a list I keep affixed to my filing cabinet in my office under a magnet that says “ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS.” It shows all the students who have earned grades of A+ in my courses. Readers of this blog may surmise from my curmudgeonly persona that the list is not huge. In fact, there are sixteen names.

From that list I selected the five who seemed most memorable for their abilities and achievements. What did they have in common? Many things, of course, some of which were also suggested in the IHE piece: curiosity, open-mindedness, willingness to be engaged. Intelligence, of course, and a capacity for hard work, obviously. But three other qualities stand out, too:



      . By this, I don’t mean a desire to be famous or make a lot of money, but rather a willingness to try to do something great in whatever one does. For the best students, an assignment is not merely a requirement to be met, but an opportunity to test and strengthen themselves.

2. Humility. Seemingly the opposite of ambition, humility, in the best students, sits in elegant balance with it. The best students have the confidence to push themselves to be the best they can, but they are humble enough to know that there is always more to learn. Life is short, and learning the art takes a long time.

3. Creativity. Observers sometimes worry that formal education stifles creativity, and, to be sure, academia does come with certain rules and restrictions. Still, like a great musician or painter, a great student figures out that some rules are actually empowering, and that some can be stretched or broken when the occasion demands.

Of course, these students don’t come along every day. My little A+ list shows I’m lucky if they come along every year, and nobody would suggest you have to be a top student to be a good student. But all students should ask themselves whether they could demonstrate more of these qualities. I know I could have used more of number 2 when I was a student.

But then, we didn’t have blogs in those days, and I probably wouldn’t have listened, anyway.

Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University.


The three secret qualities of top students

  1. I’m not surprised that you have such a smaller number of students who have received a grade of A+. English is one of those disciplines where there is no “right” answer. When I was an undergraduate, I was able to earn a grade of A+ in all of my courses except for English and History, both of which netted me an A. Why? Because in all of my science and engineering courses, there was always a “right” answer.

    If I was able to apply the knowledge I had learned to solve new problems, I would come up with the correct answer and earn that A+. In English, however, there was no correct answer. I could write well reasoned, well constructed, and well supported essays, but I couldn’t ever come up with a “right” answer.

  2. I’m a marketing professional in a global consumer packaged goods company. Recently we had a morning where senior/seasoned leaders were asked to share ‘secrets of our success’ with junior employees. I’m struck by how similar the themes of that morning were with the qualities you’ve identified of your A students. All the qualities apply, especially the top three. Your list could very well be the qualities needed to succeed in the modern business world….but I would have to add one more – Willingness to Collaborate.

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