I’ve been a pretty alright student, but at this point in my life, I’m surrounded by some of the brightest people I have ever met. I feel very fortunate to know some of the future aerospace engineers in this PhD program, many of whom will go on to work for Jet Propulsion Laboratories, NASA, SpaceX, and whatever else they decide to want to do.
I have no problem admitting that many of them are better students, and while they have been studying, I have been studying them. I wanted to see where my studying skills could improve. I tried to pin down some commonalities between the classes of person, attitudes regarding the future, and habits from day to day. Though I will have my Master’s degree in about five months, and my formal education will be through, studying and learning is something I plan to do for the rest of my life. I think that, even if you never plan to take a class again, these things I’ve noticed can be very useful to you as well.
Here’s some of the things that have helped me, and things I notice in the really bright people around me:
The first potentially right answer they provide is assumed to be wrong.
They are constantly looking for something to disprove what they came up with. They re-scan and try to find the assumption they made which has holes in it, and they keep looking until eventually they have no more doubt. By challenging their assumptions, checking and rechecking their theories, and scanning over past examples, they familiarize themselves with the material well past what is necessary.
They think along the lines of the professor.
This matters not just because your grade is determined by how they grade it, but it also matters because they are the ones who crafted the question, whatever it is. A common question they tell me that they ask is, “is that how ____ would approach this problem? It doesn’t seem to be in his taste…” Your professor knows more than you. Think like he/she does.
They write long explanations detailing what they know.
If they are wishy-washy on an answer, they write paragraphs upon paragraphs explaining everything they know about the question they are asked. They say “we know ___ to be true, and we know ___ to be true. This could imply ___ is true, which is what I’m proposing.” In other words, they convey that they obviously have poured their heart and soul into this answer to their professor. This is a very good habit to get into—beyond the grade, it makes you sure of what you’re talking about. Everybody wins.
They look forward to all-nighters.
Once, we were curious if Dominoes would deliver to a room on the fourth floor on campus. They would. The guy that delivered the pizza said “I hope I get to be in this room with you guys, I’m currently at Austin Community College preparing to hopefully be an engineer. What should I focus on?” It was pretty awesome. He was a good dude.
They don’t give up.
This one is really important. They have the drive to keep going…and going…and going. If they have 24 hours to do a test, they fully expect it to take them 23 and 1/2 hours. They sleep when they’re dead.
They are creative.
Whatever your intention with your class, the best thing you can do is be creative with the tools you’re given. Analyze history differently, try a different approach to a math problem, explain where you could further go with the information that you have. The only way you’ll be able to do that is if you understand the basics very well. Connecting different subjects forms stronger neural bonds in the brain, too. The more creativity you apply to a situation, the more dynamic your brain becomes.
How You Can Use This to Improve Right Now
Some great students are lazy, and wait till the last minute, some study every waking moment. All of them really want to do well, and they have the confidence that they can do well.
They are sincerely jazzed up, and excited about what they do. When you ask them, “what do you want to do?” They immediately say something like “I want to do space,” or “I want to be a professor,” or “I want to be in charge of the first manned mission to Mars.” There’s no room for doubt in their mind. In other words, a great student is an achiever, and everything they do is just a checked box on their life purpose to-do list.
If you want to use this to improve right now, make a checklist and try to do these things weekly. You don’t necessarily have to pull an all nighter to be excited about a challenging subject. Getting it done while the sun is shining is usually just as rewarding.
Beyond these, ask yourself what kind of attitude leads to these consistent habits that they get into. What would cause them to not want to give up, and to constantly challenge their assumptions? What would cause them to think along the lines of the professor, and to look forward to all-nighters? The more you can understand their intentions, the more you can understand your own.