Bryan Caplan  

Good Students Rule

Galbraith Opposes Cronyism... The Means-Testing Club...
Most professors like good students, but I idolize them.  For most professors, good students are a joy in the classroom, but a chore outside of the classroom.  For me, good students are a joy through and through.  I like talking with them, lunching with them, and even gaming with them.

Good students have four key traits. 

First, good students genuinely want to learn.  They don't study material merely because they see it on the syllabus or expect it on the test.

Second, good students fight the natural human tendency to forget material right after the final exam.  Unlike most students, they consciously choose to try to remember what they learn. 

Third, good students strive for what educational psychologists call Transfer of Learning.  They earnestly try to apply what they've learned outside the classroom. 

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, good students put Truth first.  They aren't afraid to entertain and embrace socially unacceptable ideas.

How can one become a good student?  While decent IQ is important, being a good student is, to a large extent, a choice.  Admit that there are important intellectual questions.  Resist your impulsive answers.  Don't worry about what people in your society are supposed to think.  Calmly listen to the arguments of people who have reflected on the important intellectual questions longer than you have.  Cross-examine the arguments.  Apply your lessons to concrete cases.  Do all this, and you're well on your way to being a good student.

What's so great about good students?  Selfishly speaking, they're fun to be around.  I've spent decades searching for answers.  It's great to share what I've found with eager minds in search of shortcuts.  Entertainment value aside, though, good students make the world a better place.  Imagine political debates - or public policy! - if every voter were a good student. 

If I admire good students so much, how can I make The Case Against Education?  Because, as I've explained before, good students deserve something radically different from the status quo.  People who care about learning should be surrounded by other students who feel the same way.  In actual education systems, however, most students just grub credentials to signal for the labor market.  Bad students sharply outnumber good students - even in grad school.  Most teachers react as you'd expect: By catering to the vast majority of anti-intellectual careerists in their classrooms.  Better teachers try to raise the bar, but giving good students a passable experience is an uphill battle when 90% of the class doesn't even want to be there.

Still, as always, we should focus on the positive.  Today is the first day of a new academic year.  I'll soon meet my latest wave of good students.  They're going to be awesome.  All the problems with the status quo notwithstanding, another great pedagogical journey is about to begin.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
BZ writes:

Unfortunately, the good students in one class or curriculum are the bad students in the next.

I can neatly recall all my poli-sci and philosophy classes -- sitting near the front, my hand always raised, following the poor prof to their office after class and generally making a nuisance of myself.

And then there were the courses for my major, which I generally considered very boring. I did some of my best doodling on those classes. Thank God I already knew the career was more interesting than the "science" of it.

David Friedman writes:

The dedication of my Price Theory:

This book is dedicated to




and M.F.,

from whom I learned economics and to



and all of the the others who have made the value of teaching it greater than the cost.

Linda was a sixteen year old (I think) freshman in an advanced intro econ course I taught at UCLA, with a beautifully clear mind. Ruben was an ex-illegal immigrant who regularly came into my office to talk about stuff--and went on to Harvard law.

Tom West writes:

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, good students put Truth first. They aren't afraid to entertain and embrace socially unacceptable ideas.

As one who has often been bristling with socially unacceptable "truths", I have realized over the last 30 years that the reason they're socially unacceptable is often not because my brilliance outshone those tired, hide-bound proles who just couldn't comprehend the truth, but because my glittering, elegant "truth" was arrived at by ignoring the vast majority of factors that were involved in problems involving the human domain.

Instead, I'd produced something that fulfilled some intellectual criteria but didn't actually improve human welfare.

I like to think that experience has left me with "truths" that are not nearly as elegant, iconoclastic or, I must admit, fun, but that might be rather more useful in reality (and might make me appear slightly less insufferable...)

TS writes:

Minor note: you say "three key traits" but list four.

Tom West,

because my glittering, elegant "truth" was arrived at by ignoring the vast majority of factors that were involved in problems involving the human domain

Could you list specific examples for this? The general statement sounds prima facie reasonable, but without specific examples, it doesn't carry any substance.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

One of the things getting me excited about teaching history of thought this fall is seeing - over the summer - who I anticipate will be good students. The ones that email over the summer about readings, etc. They could end up being the ones just following the syllabus and worrying about the tests in the end, but the enthusiasm makes me think they're likely to be good students.

The other nice thing about good students is that they keep you excited and dedicated to teaching well, which benefits the not-good-students. In that sense they're a positive externality.

Cowboy Prof writes:

To the shock and amazement of many, I publicly acknowledge that my best students are not "straight A" students, but C students who work hard to obtain a B.

I would add intellectual humility to your list of "good student attributes."

Thomas Boyle writes:

I studied for the exam: I optimized for the problem I was trying to solve (maximize career benefit vs college cost). This made me a better economist (and future employee) than student, perhaps.

Studying for the joy of it was a luxury I could not afford, at the time. I've done plenty of that since.

MingoV writes:
... giving good students a passable experience is an uphill battle when 90% of the class doesn't even want to be there.
That was my experience teaching medical school. Only 5-10% of the class were good students. (The same was true when I attended medical school in the late 1970s.)

My attempts to "raise the bar" in the section I taught generated mixed results. I achieved the second-lowest student rating of all faculty. However, the students scored above the national average on only one section of the National Board of Medical Examiners Part 1 exam: mine. (The students were far below average on the section of the NBME taught by the Teacher of the Year.)

Good students rise to the challenges of difficult material and tough exams. Everyone else wants an easy A.

Kitty_T writes:

I remember an Anglo Saxon translation class in undergrad - one of my favorites. There were 5 of us there every day, and every one of us wanted to be there. The class was a blast. Some random students seemed to audit it in the back from time to time.

At the midterm, about 70 people trailed in to take the exam. The 5 of us who were regulars were ... confused. At the end of the exam period (only the 5 of us had stayed through the whole time), the prof rewarded us with readings from randomly selected exams of our classmates. Yikes.

Horsetooth writes:

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