Academic Excellence

Academic Excellence: It’s Not Rocket Science

Rick Ostrander
Cornerstone University Provost

Like most colleges, Cornerstone University talks a lot about the notion of “academic excellence.” And building a culture of excellence is one of my main goals as provost. With that in mind, I am writing a two-part series in the Herald on the topic of academic excellence—first from the perspective of students, and then from the perspective of professors.

When we think of high-powered academics, we typically envision ivy-covered buildings and colleges boasting Rhodes scholars and Nobel Prize winners among their ranks. So what does academic excellence mean for a Christian college like Cornerstone—one which does not aspire to join Harvard and Yale atop the U.S. News and World Report rankings?

A recent book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled Outliers serves as both encouragement and a challenge for universities like us. Gladwell seeks to understand what gives rise to people who are “outliers” from the norm. His conclusion is that extraordinary achievers owe their success more to hard work and perseverance than to any mysterious trait that others do not possess.

For example, Gladwell explains the “ten thousand hours” rule—that intellectual or artistic geniuses, from Bill Gates to the Beatles, spend ten thousand hours on a particular subject before they achieve mastery.

Gladwell also explores the academic achievement gap between rich and poor schoolchildren in America. Surprisingly, he finds that during the normal academic year, rich and poor kids make similar progress in reading and math. The big change occurs in the summer, when wealthier kids have support structures (such as family, school programs, camps, etc.) that keep them doing academic work while poor kids typically are left with TV and video games. In other words, academic achievement is more a matter of “time on task” than innate giftedness.

Of course, one should take Gladwell with a grain of salt. I could spend ten thousand hours with a paint brush, but my attempt to paint the Sistine Chapel would still look more like Neanderthal cave drawings than Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

Nevertheless, the important lesson of Outliers for us is that academic excellence has less to do with innate genius and more with hard work and commitment. Moreover, I would suggest that learning is best measured not by where one begins but by where one ends up. After all, what is more academically excellent—taking a whiz-kid with a 36 ACT score and preparing him for a job at Apple; or taking a so-called “average” Christian student and inspiring her with a passion for learning, developing her critical thinking and creativity skills, and equipping her to change the world through her major? I would prefer the latter.

So what sorts of activities would characterize students who are committed to academic excellence? Here are a few examples:

  • Spending one to two hours in preparation for each hour of class time so that you come to class ready to discuss and critique the material rather than passively receive it.
  • Respectfully disagreeing with the professor or a student in class, and being able to present evidence to support your point.
  • Attending an evening guest lecture, panel discussion, or musical performance in Corum.
  • Visiting a professor during office hours to get help, learn more about the subject, or simply understand the professor’s passion for the subject.
  • Writing a rough draft of your paper a week ahead of time, having your roommate critique it, and revising it before submitting it.
  • Carrying an 11:00 a.m. class discussion over into the dining room.

As a Christian university, we are called to build a culture of academic excellence. The good news, as Malcolm Gladwell attests, is that we don’t have to be rocket scientists to achieve that. We just have to commit ourselves to taking learning seriously, and then ordering our priorities to make that happen.