How Do You Define the Ideal Student?

Credit: Creative House
Credit: Creative House

You know, the one we all love to teach, the one whose learning showcases our pedagogical acumen. Does our vision of the ideal student at some point merge with our dreams of a perfect student?

Seasoned faculty regularly bemoan the quality of today’s college students: they aren’t as good as they used to be. For a while, we thought it was our institutions—covertly eroding standards. Now most of us recognize that something close to open admissions has been forced on many institutions by financial exigence. The old debate of who does or doesn’t deserve to go to college—that too qualifies as a moot point. With enrollments in steep decline, we happily welcome all who come. Considered positively, we now teach students in need of education—the ones for whom a college degree or certification can make a lifetime of difference. Still, many of us miss the students we once taught, or imagine we taught.

With the changing landscape of higher education, it behooves us to revisit our expectations for students, and a recent article encourages that reflection. Wong and Chiu (2021) explore the concept of the ideal student, motivated by the need for “a more transparent conversation about the explicit, implicit and idealistic expectations of students in higher education” (p. 497). They believe that students new to or less familiar with higher education benefit when they understand what we expect of college students. Focus group interviews with students and faculty raised the issues explored in Wong and Chiu’s qualitative analysis.

Those interviewed made a distinction between the ideal student and a perfect student. “The ‘ideal’ university student is . . . understood to reflect ideals, desires and preferences, which can include imperfections or room for improvement, whilst the term perfect seems to entail flawlessness” (p. 503). Interviewees also viewed the concept as more malleable than fixed. Expectations for students vary across institutions and within majors and programs. The same is true of lists of ideal student characteristics. They may exclude noteworthy features characteristic of some students but not all. So, an ideal student description should not be considered a template superimposed on all students but a vision or broad framework of desirable expectations for most students.

What we expect of students must challenge them. High standards do matter; there’s much to learn and many skills to acquire. No student should find college easy. Research consistently shows that students learn more when they work hard in a course. Nonetheless, expectations can be impossibly high, unachievable when they should reachable. The vision of an ideal student looks not to minimal requirements but to something higher than average and not easily within everyone’s the grasp. That said, when we look at the ideal student portrait we create, we should be able to see at least some of the students in our courses.

Those interviewed felt that many of the characteristics of ideal students aren’t easily measured—curiosity or a good attitude, for example. High grades don’t always measure ideal characteristics or identify those who possess them. Students at the front end of college experiences can love learning and believe in their ability to learn, even students who lack strong basic skills. Students at the other end may have good grades but little appreciation for the value of education beyond job preparation.

Despite the abstract, not easily measured features of ideal learners, teachers and students benefit when they are articulated. Every self-respecting teacher aspires to uphold high standards, but rarely are these measures of educational goodness clearly articulated. Could that be because we don’t spend much time thinking about them? Wong and Chiu recognize the difficulty of getting a handle on expectations for students, but they explain why it’s important that we do. “We appreciate that the concept of ‘ideal’ is riddled with presumptions and ambiguities, but our starting point recognises that key stakeholders such as staff [faculty], student and institutions do have expectations of university students, be it stated or unstated [sic]. These expectations and ideas can have real consequences for students, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, if there are mismatches of values and practices” (p. 499).


Wong, B., & Chiu, Y.-L. T. (2021). Exploring the concept of “ideal” university student. Studies in Higher Education, 46(3), 497–508.

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