At this year’s Secret Life of Students, I participated in the final session of the day, provocatively titled “How to become a perfect student”.
Esteemed colleagues Tiffany Chiu and Michelle Morgan both challenged the idea of perfection, and it’s likely that members of the audience were wondering if there was such a thing as a “perfect” student.
I also find the concept of perfection to be problematic, particularly when it comes to people.
The idea of perfection suggests a state of flawlessness, with no room for improvement, which may be more applicable to objects such as a perfectly flawless diamond.
Given that people are inherently complex and multifaceted, for me the notion of a “perfect” student is an unrealistic and potentially harmful idea.
Not perfect, just ideal
In my research, I focused on the notion of the “ideal” student, which is conceptually different from being “perfect”. To disentangle these two terms, Tiffany and I wrote a book called The Ideal Student, where we drew on Max Weber’s theory of ideal types to unpack the concept of “ideal”.
In short, the ideal student is not a direct reflection of specific individuals with particular attributes, but rather a shared recognition of the various features that we might find across a range of students.
The concept of the “ideal” student helps us to think about desirable but realistic expectations, rather than striving for unattainable perfection or focusing solely on academic achievement.
It is a concept that encourages us to be explicit about our expectations of students, with the emphasis on desirable and ideal student characteristics (rather than the minimum requirements to maintain enrolment).
This approach can help manage expectations between staff and students, and reduce inequalities caused by hidden assumptions when students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, struggle to understand or “play” the higher education game.
Ultimately, understanding how the “ideal” student is constructed in specific contexts promotes transparency, which is central to inclusive and diverse learning and teaching practices.
Desirable student characteristics
In our session, we invited the audience to participate in an online activity, where they shared up to three characteristics they consider important or desirable in a university student. The activity collected 315 student characteristics from those who stayed until the very end!
Whilst the activity only captured keywords, it highlighted the diversity of views and opinions about what is desirable and ideal for students in higher education. It is no surprise to see characteristics such as “engaged”, “kind”, “curious”, “enthusiastic” and “motivated”, amongst others.
I also noticed being “honest” was quite popular, which may reflect earlier themes in the conference that included discussions about trust, contract cheating and the emergence of artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT.
In any case, the many keywords in the word cloud reflect the different and diverse perspectives of the audience. This diversity is also present in higher education institutions, where there are different stakeholders, each with their own views and values about what to expect of students.
Characteristics of the ideal student
In our research, we collected questionnaire data from 1,043 participants and conducted 33 focus groups with 132 staff and students. Our aim was to examine how participant backgrounds and disciplines shape their descriptions and ratings of “ideal” student characteristics.
For those of you who downloaded the Wonkhe conference resources, you may notice there is a table in our slides, called “staff vs student on dimensions of the ideal university student”.
Due to time constraints, we did not manage to share the eight overarching ideal student characteristics from the questionnaire. These characteristics are listed below by their overall ratings, and further details of the methodology are available here:
- Diligence & Engagement
- Organisation & Discipline
- Reflection & Innovation
- Positive & Confident outlook
- Supportive of Others
- Academic skills
- Employability skills
- Intelligence & Strategic approach
On the whole, staff and students had similar preferences for the ideal student characteristics. However, in relative terms, staff rated lower for “employability skills” and “intelligence and strategic approach” than students did, suggesting that staff do not view these characteristics as important as students do.
This may reflect differences in their priorities, particularly as most staff respondents are teaching staff, and career preparation may not be their focus. As with our earlier work, being clever, smart or high-achieving is not considered as important by staff or students when it comes to the ideal university student – there are many other attributes that are more desirable.
We also examined the relative rankings of these characteristics. Notably, “positive and confident outlook” was ranked third by students, but sixth by staff, indicating that students value being positive, confident and happy more than most other characteristics.
This seems to reflect the growing importance of and focus on student wellbeing in higher education. While the ranking mismatch between staff and student is relative, it is clear that students value “positive and confident outlook” in their constructions of the ideal student, and it is important for staff and universities to be mindful of how their different expectations of students are mutually understood and supported.
To sum up, we suggest using the concept of the “ideal” student as a more realistic and inclusive way to think about student expectations at university.
We see it as a working concept and we recognise there are challenges to overcome – but our position is that we should be as explicit as we can about what we expect rather than being implicit and making assumptions.