In his Sept. 29 commentary "Hardworking students? Yes, but ..." our Normandale Community College colleague Chuck Chalberg highlighted an increasingly important problem in higher education in general and community colleges in particular -- that students spend large amounts of time working at a job outside of school while trying to further their education. He asserted that "this is a recipe for academic disaster." He also believes that because students spend so much time working, most of them "seem to be telling us that they really don't have time for an extraordinary education, thank you very much."
Like our colleague, we have found students that, for one reason or another, have difficulty achieving academic success. We agree that systematic problems contribute. For instance, society increasingly teaches students that education is more about getting the credentials to get a good job than about cultivating an intrinsic joy in learning. This obviously makes it more difficult for students to want to work hard in their courses.
However, we disagree with Chalberg's conclusion that working outside of school is the culprit. We've spent a considerable amount of time researching and studying student learning. We've developed various anonymous, objective instruments asking students about the amount of time they spend on outside activities such as paid employment, and on tasks such as reading their homework assignments, study habits and grades. We have consistently found two important results:
• First, the more hours students report spent working outside of school, the higher their grades. How could this be? It seems that some students have high motivation in general, allowing them to accomplish a considerable amount across many activities. More broadly, this finding points to perhaps the most important factor in academic success: self-discipline. A student with high self-discipline sets goals and is undeterred by distractions. In fact, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that self-discipline predicts academic success considerably stronger than intelligence.
• Second, there is virtually no correlation between the amount of time students spend studying and the grades they achieve. Other researchers have found the same result in other published research. There appear to be several reasons for this finding. Most significant, we believe, is that the quality of students' studying is much more relevant for generating learning and memory than is the quantity of their studying. For example, reading mindlessly or simply trying to memorize material is nonproductive. Psychological research shows that students who are curious and have learned to read and study for meaning and understanding retain significantly more information.
We agree with Chalberg that an extraordinary education is something that "cannot simply be received, but must also be earned." We might frame it differently, though. Rather than focusing so much on the provision of an "extraordinary education," we believe that much more could be accomplished if we concentrated on nurturing "extraordinary students."
Some of the characteristics of extraordinary students have been highlighted above, including a joy for learning for its own sake, a hard work ethic, self-discipline, intellectual curiosity, and an understanding of the skills necessary to learn. We would do well as a society to spend much time discussing how to support families, communities, schools and students in ways that help them develop these essential characteristics.
Myles Johnson is a retired faculty member in psychology at Normandale Community College. Andy Tix teaches psychology at Normandale.