A “Willingness to Learn” is Key to Your Teen’s Success in College

A healthy dose of curiosity sets the stage for success

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: A Willingness to Learn is Key to Your Teen’s Success in College

Written by: Marybeth Bock

If you’re like a lot of parents of soon-to-be college kids, you might find yourself being sucked into the crazy college admissions rat race dedicated to helping your teen build a competitive application so they can get into a “good school.”

In so many ways, it’s just one big checklist.

Play a sport? Check! 

Ramp up your GPA? Check!

Be an officer in a school club? Check! 

Complete community service hours? Check! 

We get so wrapped up in focusing on what it takes to get our teens into college, that we sometimes don’t think about what it takes for them to be successful once they’re actually in college.

Or, we make the assumption that once our kids get accepted into college, the hard part is over. Surely, they’ll be successful once they’re there, right?

Well… not so fast. That’s not always the case.

A “Willingness to Learn” is Key to Your Teen’s Success in College


According to Education Data Initiative, up to 32% of undergraduates don’t complete their degree program (for a variety of reasons) and the first-time undergraduate freshmen dropout rate hovers around 24%.

The bottom line, getting into college is one hurdle. Actually being successful after our kids step on campus is an entirely different (and perhaps more challenging) hurdle altogether. 

What Does it Take to Be Successful in College?

Countless articles and books offer advice and “tips and tricks” on what it takes to be a successful college student. Everything from mastering time management and becoming a critical thinker to adopting smart study habits and taking advantage of professors’ after-hours are all pieces of advice college kids are given. While definitely viable and valuable suggestions, experts say there’s more to it than that.

It turns out there’s one critical factor that can improve a student’s ability to succeed in college that most people don’t recognize… a simple willingness to learn.

What is a Willingness to Learn?

Simply put, a willingness to learn means being willing, eager, and open to new experiences, ideas, information and skills that hold the power to improve a student’s abilities, enjoyment and knowledge. 

Sounds too simple to be true, right? Doesn’t everyone enter college with a willingness to learn?

In short… no.

Some students walk in equipped with a multitude of tools – everything except a true willingness to learn. 

Why a Willingness to Learn Helps Students Succeed

Jonathan Malesic, Ph.D., an award-winning author and teacher is a firm believer that an element of caring is crucial to a student’s willingness to learn. In his more than 20 years teaching college, he’s discovered that students who really care about being in class, asking questions, and exploring new ideas, are the most successful.

According to Dr. Malesic, a willingness to learn goes hand-in-hand with having a growth mindset, but there is a stark difference. 

“Having a growth mindset means believing that your basic qualities – like how smart you are or whether you’re good at math – are things you can change through your own efforts. However, a willingness to learn is not about self, it’s about the greater world around you. It’s a student’s genuine belief that every class offers something worthwhile, even if they don’t know in advance what that something is,” he said. 

But it’s not just about being eager to learn in class. 

After all, anyone who’s been in college knows that from the moment you step on campus to the day you graduate, it’s one big learning curve. The fact is, college is so much more than just listening to professors’ lectures, pulling all-nighters and passing exams.

It’s about truly embracing the whole college experience to get the most out of it. From being open to meeting new and interesting people and diving into their classes with true curiosity to enriching their life through campus activities, clubs and events and exploring the world from a fresh perspective, the more willing students are to learn and embrace all college has to offer, the more successful they’ll be.

How to Help Your Child Foster a Genuine Willingness to Learn

To help your child foster a true willingness to learn, you essentially have to “de-program” them from traditional college beliefs. Here are a few ways you can remind your child that college offers a world of opportunity beyond academics. 

Shift the Mindset that College is ONLY for Job Knowledge and Preparation

Make sure your child knows that college is so much more than simply academic preparation to secure a degree and land a future job. It’s about learning how to adult. It’s about learning how to stand on your own two feet without a safety net. It’s about figuring things out every single day, overcoming obstacles, pushing yourself harder than you ever have before and realizing just how capable you really are. It’s about meeting new people, exploring new ideas, and having experiences that hold the power to change you in ways you never thought possible.

Remind Them that Every Class Has Value

As Dr. Malesic points out, “The human mind is capable of much more than a job will demand of it. I haven’t had to solve a calculus problem in 25 years. But learning to do so expanded my brain in ways that can’t simply be reduced to a checklist of job skills.”

In other words, there is no such thing as a “useless” class. Even the most basic, boring, “gen-ed” classes have value. Perhaps your child will engage in conversations with other students that inspire critical thinking. Perhaps their professor will inspire them in a way they never imagined. Perhaps the class is just lighthearted enough that it takes the pressure off a bit and helps them laugh. 

Ditch the “Knowingness” Attitude

With a wealth of information at their fingertips, students can Google a topic and feel like they’re an expert in four minutes flat. But a false sense of “knowingness” can hold them back from expressing real curiosity about a topic.

There’s a certain empowerment that comes from knowing something beyond the surface level, from having the ability to converse with people from various cultures, diversities, and backgrounds about a variety of subjects and knowing more about the vast world around them.

Encourage Them to Step Out of Their Comfort Zone

Whether it’s taking a class that challenges them, joining a new club, introducing themselves to a group of students on campus or the student sitting next to them in class, or having the courage to try virtually anything new – true learning comes when our kids step out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in the college experience

Once they do, they’ll learn to enjoy the process of putting themselves out there, taking risks, and learning (and growing) in the process.

Model Curiosity

Be open and honest with your child when you don’t know something. When you don’t have an answer, express interest in finding out more, and use it as a teachable moment where you can delve into a topic together and discuss how to find reliable and accurate information online. (This is when you can take advantage of all the informative and insightful documentaries on streaming services.)

Don’t let your teen venture off to college with a “checklist attitude.” Encourage them to make the absolute most of their college experience.

Because whether your teen’s goal is a four-year university, a community college, or a technical career experience, a genuine willingness to learn will keep them motivated, curious, and full of wonder both now and for the rest of their life.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.


If you enjoyed reading, “A Willingness to Learn is Key to Your Teen’s Success in College,” you might like reading these posts, too!

College Bucket List: 75 Ways to Embrace the Experience

8 Conversations to Have with Your Daughter Before She Leaves for College

5 Reminders for Parents as the College Process Begins


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