I’ve got a question for you: What makes students successful?

A challenge, I like it!” says Mr. Sparks, on the animated television show “Noddy,” my daughter’s first favorite cartoon. She doesn’t remember it now — now that she’s a big first grader — but when she was three she could recite lines from Noddy like nobody’s business. In every episode, the character I mention here, Mr. Sparks, faces challenges, works hard, and solves them. Clearly, the screen writers for the show are trying to instill in their young audience a script for success.

The-Marshmallow-Test1Is that what success boils down to, though? The ability to face challenges head on, persevere, and work till it’s done? Attention, persistence, self regulation, and the delay of gratification, all in the name of achievement? That is what the results of the original “marshmallow study” imply, after all (at least, that’s how it’s often discussed today).

I find myself thinking about this a lot. If you’ve read all my posts here (or even just some of them), I suspect an answer to the question will pop out at you. Be that as it may though, I know it’s a complicated process and don’t think I’ve yet to fully capture the entirety of it here on cognitioneducation.

This morning, as I was grading the 3rd round of assignments for one of my classes – a class where students complete 10 such assignments during the semester – I found myself mulling this over again. Turns out that students who do well on the assignments also tend to do really well on the in-class exams. Why is this? Here are some options:

  • Students who do well on assignments also do well on exams because they are smart.
  • Students who do well on assignments also do well on exams because they have a winning work ethic.
  • I designed the assignments such that careful attention to the process of assignment completion serves as an effective study aide. They do well on the exam because they properly worked through the assignment, just as I intended.

When you think about the success of students, to what do you attribute success? Do you tend to think about one of the options above, or do you think in a different way? I welcome you to share your thoughts and really want to know your perceptions, whether you follow research or not. Speaking from your experience, whatever that may be, I’d like to know.

If you are willing to answer my question for you then, “What makes students successful?” here’s what you can do:

  1. Share your thoughts in the comments section here
  2. On your own page, write a post articulating your thoughts on success, and link back to this challenge so I can keep track of the responses

Once a set of responses accumulates, I will write a larger post reflecting what you all think and include a compare / contrast element as well. That is, I want to write a post showing the intersection between conventional wisdom and current trends in the developmental and learning sciences. If conventional wisdom and current research trends are at odds, then work needs to done to make research accessible and applicable.

I look forward to your replies, ’cause as it turns out, I like challenges too! Though I am glad not to be plagued by the catchy Noddy theme song these days, I do sometime miss Mr. Sparks’s perky enthusiasm for challenge.



  1. A comment from another posting:

    “It was my experience that success as a student, in terms of academia, were not a personal success. Doing assignments and all that was a challenge in that my kids had to redirect their intelligence to complete their requirements. In terms of negligible senescence ,success is measured, I believe, in an enthusiasm for the wonders of the world and your ability to gain the proper understanding of it. My son spent all of 5th grade at home waiting to get accepted at our school of choice. He built a zip line. Drew it out, made a material list, coated it out, worked to earn the money and built it. Then entered 6th grade well ahead of his class. Success!! [So] It was their inner drive [that caused their success] . Matched with parents that really listened to them.”

  2. As a teacher, I have seen research suggesting that students who go over what they have learnt in class 24 hours later, 48 hours later, 1 week later and then 1 month later, have much better recall. In contrast, if students do not go over the information, they will have forgotten approximately 80% of it a month or so later. This suggests that students who work consistently throughout their studies will do better.
    Other research shows that successful students constantly ask themselves questions about the material they are learning and make sure that they fully understand it i.e. students who critically evaluate their own understanding and try to get to grips with weaknesses in their understanding, do better.
    Students who do at least five past papers before an examination do better.
    Teachers can improve students understanding by constantly making links and interleaving previous learning with new learning.
    The constant revisiting of knowledge improves learning.

    • Thanks for sharing your knowledge on how to boost learning. Do you see evidence of this in your classrooms, or take steps to help students engage in repeated, distributed practice? Out of curiosity, do you think other factors interact with practice too?

      • Hi Erica,

        I think that students who work consistently often perform the best in my subject, Psychology. Sometimes students who have a natural aptitude for psychology but don’t work hard, fail to achieve the highest grade. I try to interleave research methods, which the students find particularly difficult as much as possible in my teaching. I also try to make links as well. Lots of factors do affect student’s performance other than what teachers do. Family, friends, boyfriends/girlfirends etc.

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