Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is Diligence More Important For Students Than Intelligence?

What makes an "ideal student"? A new survey ranks diligence above intelligence.

Key points

  • Many universities take an old-school approach to higher education that is steeped in tradition and perpetuates the status quo.
  • A new higher ed study challenges the status quo by suggesting that the most valued dimension of an ideal student is diligence, not intelligence.
  • Ranking the eight dimensions of an "ideal student" highlights "potential inequalities driven by implicit and unspoken rules of higher education."
Source: elenabsl/Shutterstock

A recently published survey ranks the "eight dimensions of the ideal student in higher education" based on a questionnaire that asked 1,043 university students and staff in the UK to "write down their top five most and least important characteristics of an ideal student." These findings (Wong, DeWitt, & Chiu, 2021) were published on May 12 in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Review.

"This paper aims to further develop the working concept of the ideal student, which can be defined as 'the desirable but realistic expectations of students in higher education,'" the authors explain.

The Ideal Student: Diligence Tops the List

Overall, these survey findings suggest that in higher education, both students and educators value the conscientiousness of a hard-working and enthusiastic learner who is engaged over someone with high intelligence who is academically gifted.

Among the eight dimensions of the hypothetical ideal student ranked by Wong, DeWitt, & Chiu, the most important, by far, was "diligence and engagement." According to the researchers, this dimension reflects "the importance of attributes like a positive attitude towards learning, a strong work ethic, enthusiasm for a subject, dedication, and effort."

On the flip side, the lowest-rated dimension of a hypothetical ideal student was "intelligence and a strategic approach." According to the researchers, this shows that "being academically smart, capable, and high-achieving was seen as least important overall."

"Being intelligent and strategic does not appear to be that important for [university] staff and only moderately more important for students," co-author Billy Wong, associate professor of education at the University of Reading, said in a news release. "This is surprising, given the extent to which graduates are often judged on their degree results."

8 Dimensions of an "Ideal Student" (Wong, DeWitt, & Chiu, 2021)

  1. Diligence and engagement
  2. Organization and discipline
  3. Reflection and innovation
  4. Positive and confident outlook
  5. Supportive of others
  6. Academic skills
  7. Employability skills
  8. Intelligence and strategic approach

Interestingly, having a "positive and confident outlook" was ranked third by students but sixth by university staff; hence its place at number four overall. This discrepancy suggests that students may be putting a higher premium on their mental health and subjective well-being than university staff.

"The importance of student happiness and confidence is crucial in efforts to promote better student mental health and well-being, especially as demands for university mental health services and counseling have reportedly increased in recent years," Wong noted.

"The aim of this paper was to present the eight dimensions of the ideal student, which further advanced our conceptualization of this concept," the authors conclude. "Whilst the eight dimensions are necessarily tentative, our survey has offered a statistical and nuanced interpretation of the ideal student, beyond the academic and personal skillsets that were previously identified."

Blogger's note: My alma mater, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., was founded in 1965 by a group of norm-breaking educators who put a premium on student engagement and enthusiasm; they didn't care about test scores or grades. The school's motto, "Non Satis Scire" (to know is not enough), sums up their pedagogical view. For details on how this type of educational environment rewired my brain to love learning, see "Flourishing in Life Does Not Require Straight A's."


Billy Wong Jennifer DeWitt & Yuan-Li Tiffany Chiu. "Mapping the Eight Dimensions of the Ideal Student in Higher Education." Educational Review (First published online: May 12, 2021) DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2021.1909538