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How to be a Good Student — Part 2 of 2

How to be a Good Student — Part 2 of 2

Christopher Simmons

In part one of this feature I highlighted a few of the more obvious things you can do as a student to help enhance your chances for success — showing up, sowing your work, taking notes, and being an active participant. Here are a few less intuitive recommendations to round out that advice:

Be courageous

I have great admiration for students. Being a student takes tremendous courage. It requires a person to first know what they want for themselves, second acknowledge that they need additional expertise to realize that ambition, and third to commit to a rigorous course of inquiry to attain that knowledge. Students put a great deal of faith in their school and their instructors, and that takes courage too. Sometime it can be difficult to remember that learning is your choice, as it can be easy to forget that any journey into the unknown is a perilous adventure. In moments of frustration, despair or defeat, it may be helpful to remember that education is your journey — your quest. In that sense you are the hero of your own story, and the hero must persevere.

Learn to fail

In the creative arts especially, we are not training for competence. We are not looking for adequacy. We are not satisfied with good work. We are seeking greatness, challenge, inspiration. Yes, you must first learn the fundamentals. To truly master the fundamentals you must make them your own — break them, reinvent them, uplift them, subvert them, pervert them, pierce them. Grasping whatever it is you know you must take flying leaps into the unknown and only as you fall being to build wings. Often this will mean a painful descent into a pit of failure, but unless you risk spectacular failure it is unlikely you will reach spectacular heights. School is a time and a place for experimentation and discovery. That means a lot of trial and error, so don’t be afraid of the latter; some of my successful students have suffered the most agonizing defeats.

Teach someone else

One thing I know about teaching is that you learn a lot in the process. I learn from teaching every day. Some lessons are obvious, other are subtle. The act of teaching requires clarity, communication and connection — you have to be clear about what you’re trying to say, you must find a way to communicate that message effectively, and you must connect with people individually so that they will care about the subject the way you do. None of these things are easy. In fact, they must be learned. Whether you’re required to or not, its a good idea to work in groups. Learn from what others are doing, but help them learn from you as well. By helping a classmate learn a technique, or process (or just see things from your point of view) you’ll crystallize that knowledge for yourself. It’s the ultimate win-win.


When it come to problem-solving, our brains are built for efficiency, not creativity. Once we learn that a round peg fits in a round hole, we stop considering whether a square peg will fit in there. Most of the time this serves us well — we don’t have to invent a new way to tie our shoes every day, we just tie them the way we’ve hardwired ourselves to do it. Whether we realize it or not, these biases often intrude onto our creative process too. It may be as superficial as our predisposition toward a particular typeface, color palette or style, or as profound as our working methodology, research strategy, or toolset. Whatever our biases, we must work diligently to overcome them. We must force ourselves to find new ways of looking at problems if we are to discover innovative solutions to them. We must ask ourselves questions that push our thinking to the extremes (“what would this be if it were ten times larger?”) or recontextualize the fundamental nature of the problem (what if this poster were a song?”). The questons (and answers) may seem absurd, but they are necessary if we are to, as Yoda admonished, “unlearn what we have learned.”

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