Category Archives: Academic Success

Forgiveness from Failure

I have been enjoying Paul Tough’s important book on learning, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”  There is so much to chew on in this provocative book, but one of the most interesting and difficult chapters, I think, is “How to Think.”

Here, Tough uses the case study of a Chess teacher named Elizabeth Spiegel.  Spiegel is a great coach to middle schoolers learning the game and competing at a high level.  Tough tells the story of Sebastian Garcia and how he lost a game during a tournament.  Spiegel dissects what went wrong, and she criticizes Sebastian for rushing a critical move that inevitably led to his defeat.

Tough writes, “Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them.” (p. 115)  He quotes Spiegel: “I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.” (p. 116)

She goes on to explain that she uses what Tough calls “calibrated meanness” to push her students, showing them that she takes them seriously enough to demand they improve.  Tough summarizes: “Students were being challenged to look deeply at their mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently.” (p. 121)

While Tough argues that Spiegel is teaching her students grit, curiosity, self-control and optimism (p. 122), I would say she is teaching them how to forgive themselves.  Making mistakes, academic and otherwise, is a profound reality of human existence.  It may also be the toughest part of being human.  So teaching our children, and by extension ourselves, how to get passed our mistakes may be the greatest gift we can bestow.

What I think Spiegel is doing is pushing her students to deeply understand their mistakes, digging until they see a failed moment of recollection or judgment, the fork in the road that ended with a mistake.  By owning this process of criticism, her students can learn that the mechanics of decision-making can be studied.  That study isolates the immediate cause, keeping another human strength and failing—the ability to generalize—at bay.

It is when we generalize about mistakes—“I’m not good at Math!” “I am an idiot!”—that we destroy ourselves.  But if we keep them isolated and clearly understood, we may have found a path to forgiveness.

I remain stymied by the challenges of forgiveness.  I think it’s a key to so much happiness, and yet it is elusive.  But this story of Spiegel and Sebastian offers some hope.  Dig deep, think hard, demand more, resist generalization and forgiveness may be waiting.



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Filed under Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, Coping with Failure

Friendly Competition: Using Stress to Succeed

I have just read a New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart,” that has profoundly changed the way I think about stress.  It is a must read.

The article summarizes recent research, including that of Rochester’s Jeremy Jamieson, investigating the effects of stress on academic performance.  Researchers argue that people can fall into two broad categories, “Warriors” and “Worriers.”  (About half of all people fall in just one, the rest of us have a mix.)  Warriors have brains that flush stress-inducing dopamine, so they revel in the challenges of threatening environments—like taking a test.

Worriers process dopamine more slowly, so they can get overwhelmed quickly by stress.  These people have superior executive functions—reasoning, problem-solving, planning—but they are vulnerable to the “engine” being flooded with too much “gas,” or stress.  So they don’t perform well, even though they’re “smart.”

Jamieson conducted research on Harvard undergraduates, giving half of them a card saying that “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better…(so) you shouldn’t feel concerned… (just) remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”  This had an amazing positive effective, immediately boosting mock GRE scores by 50 points.  Just by being reassured that stress can be a positive.

Think about this for just a second.  Jamieson and his colleagues are telling us that stress is a natural, physiological reaction to a challenging situation.  Stress makes us more alert, and when it is embraced (and this is critical), it can make our brains fire on all cylinders.  Think: “How do I kill the bear that is threatening my cave?”  He is saying that “managing stress,” a modern mantra, should not be an effort to suppress or dismiss stress but to use it to attack, to compete, to succeed.

The Times article, which you should read carefully and repeatedly, goes on to look at ways that we can train students to embrace stress.  This is mostly done through what might be called “Friendly Competition,” where students learn to compete intellectually in a non-threatening but still challenging situation.  Like a chess match, a math contest, or a trivia game.

I can imagine how teachers could use games and gaming more regularly, perhaps in groups.  This could promote a fun, team-oriented approach to solving problems, but with the stakes of winning or losing.

Perhaps more importantly, research like this can make us all more aware of whether we are Worriers or Warriors—or a little of both.  And with that in mind, we can begin to see stress less as a burden and more of an invitation to take on a challenge.

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Filed under Academic Success, Study Skills

International Student Success

This week in Washington, an extraordinary group of embassy officials and university representatives gathered at the University of California Center to discuss many issues around international education.  The Washington International Education Conference, sponsored by the Washington International Education Council (headed by Bill Fish), gathers each year to exchange ideas and to expose university officials to the diplomatic community.

I will be writing several blogs about this experience and the issues raised there.  Here, I’d like to touch on some ideas I shared in my own address to the conference.  (Bader Address to WIEC January 2013).  I shared with participants my observation that universities tend to focus on non-academic issues when supporting their international students.  These include securing a visa, getting to campus, and becoming culturally acclimated.  While these services are critical, they do not directly support academic success.  Indeed, internationals face a series of challenges:

They are focused on outcomes, not process.  Many traditional education systems, such as those in China and India, require students to excel at standardized tests.  So international students tend to be focused on final exams, rather than class participation and interim assignments.  This misunderstanding can lead to failure.

They are very dependent on their families.  This is understandable, so far from home, but their families can misunderstand the American college environment.  They may insist a student major in Biology, for example, to prepare for medical school, when other avenues are open.  If their student has little interest in Biology, that can cause problems.

They don’t understand a liberal education.  Internationals often focus on accomplishment and credentialing–which is understandable.  But they fail to realize or even appreciate the many learning opportunities of a liberal, exploratory education.

They think careers and majors are the same thing.  Majors are a teaching tool in American colleges, not a road to expertise.  They poorly predict professional choices.  And yet internationals insist that some majors are more worthwhile, even when lesser known programs (say, History) might be a better fit and result in more success.

They rely on memory.  Many internationals believe that absorbing and the regurgitating information is their primary intellectual goal.  Yet American professors are expecting higher levels of thinking, where problems are solved and connections are made–even in the sciences.

They are vulnerable to failure.  We are so impressed by our international visitors that we often overlook their human frailties.  Determined as they are, they are no immune to personal difficulties and failings.  We must treat them as the sons and daughters of our neighbors, caring for them as we would our own children.

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Filed under Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, Choosing a Major, International Exchange

Dean’s List Podcast #12: Coping with Failure in College

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Filed under Academic Advising, Academic Exploration, Academic Success, Cause of Academic Failure, GPA

Dean’s List Podcast #11: Why Students Struggle in College

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Filed under Academic Success, Athletics, Cause of Academic Failure, Pre-Medical Students, Study Skills

Getting your Money’s Worth in College

I wrote “Dean’s List” partly because I worry that families are investing staggering resources into a college experience that is not all it should be.  But let me be more explicit here.

As the costs of tuition rise through the roof, we have begun an important debate on whether America’s higher education is worth the investment.  Politicians wonder whether their state university’s faculty focus enough on teaching, for example.  Since debate may never be resolved, consider a couple of ideas to get your money’s worth now:

  • Open Up.  The key to college success is finding a course of study that deeply interests you, tapping into your talent and natural curiosity.  That might mean exploring new areas, even those that seem “impractical,” so that you get the good grades that come of wanting to learn.  Do not let someone else tell you what you like.  But do more than that.  Go find what you love.
  • Expect the New.  The academic experience in college is profoundly different than in high school, even at a small college.  Your professors are not teachers; they are more than that.  No one is going to spoon feed you.  So you need to take ownership of your studies.  If you expect a new environment, you are more likely to celebrate the opportunities and thrive.
  • Get Help.  Since you now know that learning is your job, you will also need to take charge of finding the help you need.  That begins with good academic advising, as advisors can make sure you’re ready for what you’re studying, and continues with tutoring and, when needed, counseling.  Getting help is a sign of strength.  Be strong and get help.
  • Buy Smart.  Federal law now requires that universities post information about books you’ll need to purchase, so that you don’t have to buy them at the university bookstore.  Armed with an ISBN number, or just the title and author, you can find bargains online or buy it used.  You can also “buy” cheaper summer courses outside your college, then transfer them back.  But do not cheat yourself of a full experience by graduating early.  If you have no choice, shave off just one semester.
  • Stick to It.  Most American colleges and universities have serious problems with retention.  Many places lose nearly half of their freshmen as they transfer or drop out.  No matter how little or much you are paying in tuition, it is all wasted if you don’t complete your degree.  That’s why getting good help and advising is so crucial.

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Filed under Academic Advising, Academic Exploration, Academic Success