The Definition of Success

I occasionally come across students who, to the judgmental eye, seem to strive for mediocrity. They admittedly put in minimal effort, study infrequently, calculate what they MUST do to pass and almost exclusively show up when they have to and not one time more.

bage juneAs a new faculty member (and closet perfectionist), this behavior used to cause me much consternation, particularly when I calculated grades at the end of the semester. I wondered why a student would skip assignments despite reminders and opportunities to submit them late (albeit with a penalty). How could receiving a “D” grade put a smile on a student’s face when s/he had everything needed to get a higher grade, even the acclaimed “A.”

Over the years, I observed the spread of grades in my classes. I realized thoughtful students that do the minimum to get by simply have different goals from those who put effort into achieving the highest scores possible. For example:

Student A might be holding down two part-time jobs, raising a young family and struggling to make ends meet. She gets to class when she can—given her unreliable car—and sometimes chooses to help her children with their homework and not take valuable time to work on hers. However, she knows if she can earn her degree, she’ll get a promotion to a full-time job with a raise, medical benefits and vacation time.

Student B is a full-time student who isn’t working, but is planning to apply to several top-tier graduate schools. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life yet, but she believes the best school will give her the best chance to become whatever it is she decides.

As long as Student A passes and meets any other requirements her school requires, she’ll graduate. She doesn’t have to have a 4.0 or even a 3.0 GPA. She is successful when she walks across the stage to receive her degree. For Student B, her GPA may make all the difference between getting into the graduate school she wants and having to settle for a good school, but not her ideal choice.

As educators, it is not up to us to establish goals or make these important choices for students. Our job is to teach, support their learning and celebrate their successes—as they define it.

Submitted by Robyn-Jay Bage


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