Questions top students ask

My last post was about how, while anyone can pass any course, the only students who’ll reach the top are those with their own opinions. Academic greatness isn’t necessarily the result of innate intelligence; it’s something that a lot of people could achieve if they just changed their outlook. The ability to have an opinion isn’t an intrinsic part of a person’s personality; it’s a habit that can be learned and adopted.

If my observations from my teaching life are correct, that’s great news for those of you who want to be top students but aren’t. You can become one simply by getting into the habit of opinion-building. Here are three easy steps to get you started:

1) Listen. Weirdly enough, the more of other people’s opinions you take on board, the easier it is for you to find your own. In order to take those opinions on board, you need to do two things, all the time, prolifically and indiscriminately: read and listen. Read and listen to things you hate, to things you love, to things you understand, and to things that make no sense. Other people’s ideas are the root of your own: soak them up greedily. Never walk away from anything you read or listen to without knowing what it means. Develop an insatiable appetite for ideas.

2) Question. Get into the mindset that there are very few straight facts in the world. Most ideas that we have are opinions, well-reasoned or not, that help us explain our world a little better. Ask yourself: Where does that idea come from? Who thought of it first? Is it based on fact or emotion? What emotions is it based on? What does it offer people? Is it a solid idea, or could it be easily knocked over? What are its limitations?

3) Compare. Humans are creatures of comparison; we make sense of what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know. All over the world, we associate age with wisdom because we believe that the more a person has gone through – the more previous situations they have to compare to – the better their decisions are going to be. So, once you’ve understood someone else’s idea, you need to turn it into your own through a process of comparison. Ask yourself: How does my own experience support or challenge it? What alternative ideas are out there? What does the opposite belief look like? What would the middle ground look like? 

You might not find your own opinion straightaway. But, get into the habit of actively listening, questioning and comparing, and you’re well on the way to producing top-level opinions. For how to actually express these opinions in a way that’s clear (but not boring), intelligent (but not try-hard) and confident (but not arrogant) – in other words, in the way that’ll get you top marks – tune into my next post. 

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