There are many ways to define success in a college course: some measurable (such as scores on a test), others somewhat more subjective (such as a sense of accomplishment).

We wanted to learn how today’s students defined success. So, in our recent Student Engagement Insights survey, we asked over 3,500 students: How would you define whether a course is a success to you? Here are a few of the most common answers.

Defining success in a college course: The student perspective

  • The grade. Unsurprisingly, a great number of students stated that a good grade indicated “success” to them. That grade differed from response to response; for some students, an “A” indicates success; for others, any grade over a “C” or “C+” represented a job well done.

Before you’re concerned that students are solely focused on grades, do note that many of the students, including who listed the grade as an indicator of success, cited other measures of success, such as the following.

  • Increased understanding of course concepts. Students feel successful when they’ve deepened their knowledge of a topic through your course. Representative comments include those such as: “Upon completion of the course, if I have learned more and understand things differently than when I started, the class was successful,” and “A real success is when I feel like I’ve actually learned something from the class and pass with a high grade.”
  • The ability to retain that knowledge… and pass it along. The ability to hang on to what they’ve learned is important to students, too. One student has a sense of accomplishment “when I feel I have retained the knowledge studied in the course and how I now can apply it towards my degree.” And being able to help others with their new-found knowledge is valuable as well: one student shared that “understanding something I learned well enough to teach it to someone else” is a key indicator of success.
  • Gaining real-world application that translates to their personal and professional lives. One student noted that a college course is a success if “I’ve come away with tools I’m able to apply to my everyday life.” Several students specifically connected success in a course to success in a job or career. As another wrote: “No matter what grade I make, a course is a success if I leave with the knowledge and skills needed to apply in my career field.”


Instructors’ perspective on defining success in college

In our Instructor Engagement Survey, we asked a similar question: How would you define whether a student is successful in a course?

In fact, many of their responses were quite similar to students’. “Grades,” “meet[ing] learning objectives,” and “passing” appeared numerous times, as did such responses as “deeper understanding,” “apply[ing] course concepts to real-world scenarios,” and “being able to effectively do the job once they graduate and are employed.”
Some of the other indicators named by instructors include:

  • Student engagement. Some of the ways instructors define engaging behaviors include: “showing up, asking questions, and doing work”; “being able to contribute in class, fulfilling their obligations on assignments and doing well on exams”; “being able to ask the right questions”‘ and “if they prioritize school, studying and their excitement/commitment to learn and ask questions.”
  • Improved critical-thinking and problem-solving capabilities. The “level of critical thinking development” and the student’s ability to apply the concepts to solve issues” indicate success to many of our respondents. As one put it: “If s/he has developed transferable, critical thinking skills,” then a student has achieved success.
  • Growth over the course of the term. One instructor put it concisely: “If they make progress, they are successful.” Another stated it in terms similar to Bloom’s Taxonomy: “If they move from their current place on the continuum to the next level (for example, from understanding to application).”

A student’s success in a college course can be defined by an objective standard (such as a passing grade, or satisfaction of stated objectives)… but achievement also has an individual element to it, be that a personal discovery, or one’s own feeling of growth and accomplishment. Any way you look at it… students do want to succeed, and we’re sure you want to help them meet those objectives as well.

How do you define success in your college course? How do you help students achieve the success you want them to have? Share your ideas in the comments.