I have been teaching the same course at UCI for six, almost seven years now. The first time that I taught Inf111 was Winter Quarter, 2004. (Technically, it was ICS121 at the time. It wasn't re-numbered until a couple years later.) I have learned a lot about teaching in those years, but that is a topic for another time. I have learned a lot about learning, but not enough. I have a couple of observations about students who do well, who get "A's" in school.
An "A" student organizes their life in a way that allows them to succeed. This is the single most significant characteristic that separates an "A" student from a "D" student. An "A" student ensures that they has enough time to study and keeps distractions at bay. A "D" student has a fight with their significant other the night before the final exam, which keeps them up all night AND prevents them from studying.
An "A" student submits assignments on time. A "D" student submits assignments late or not at all. It's a small thing, but it makes a difference.
An "A" student shows up. Lecture is not necessarily the best way to absorb new material, but it does provide two key benefits. One, it provides time with the material, which leads to familiarity and comfort with the material. It almost doesn't matter what is covered during the lecture. Two, lectures are an opportunity for a student to assimilate into a culture. In other words, the student can learn the logic behind a discipline and how to structure an argument within the genre. This affinity is important for answering open-ended questions on tests and for solving open-ended problems in an acceptable manner.
An "A" student does well on the first evaluation. There is almost a perfect positive correlation between a student's score on the first evaluation (no matter how large or small) with the student's final overall grade in the course. This relationship sometimes makes me despair my role as a teacher, but it's a central truth. Graduates from Ivy League schools do well, because they were doing well before they enrolled in the school.
An "A" student doesn't necessarily start ahead of time. Some "A" students have a finely honed sense of the "last minute," i.e. the last possible moment to start an assignment or studying for a test and still succeed.
An "A" student isn't necessarily the smartest or most engaged person in the class. Intelligence helps, but the ability to organize one's life trumps raw processing power.
So what does this say about education more broadly?
Students who don't have support and orderly lives do less well. This describes a lot of working class and inner city kids. It's almost like they are doomed before they start. And this is why we celebrate when a kid with a complicated home life succeeds-- they have beaten the odds.
Good teaching matters more to students in the middle of the pack. Students at the head of the class tend to be capable book learners and can drive their own learning experience. Not everyone learns in this way. Classroom exercises, presenting material in other modalities, and accommodation of learning styles are ways that good teachers can make sure average students learn the material. "B" and "C" students need more help engaging with written material, and consequently innovative teaching has more impact on them. This tendency also has implications for working class and inner city kids, which is why programs like "Teach for America" are important.
Teaching "A" students is rewarding, because it provides a form of cheap and easy validation for me: I taught it, they got it. Teaching "B" and "C" students is rewarding, because it allows me to make a difference in outcomes. We're comrades in the same war: while I struggle to teach well, they struggle to learn well.