John Jensen: Understanding Why Students Aren’t Challenged

On July 10, 2012, the Center for American Progress issued a report titled “Do Schools Challenge Our Students: What Student Surveys Tell Us About the State of Education in the United States,” by Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal.  Utilizing feedback from students, it summarized student perceptions of their experience.  In state after state, at different age levels and for different subjects, a third to a half of students echoed a familiar theme: “too easy,” “little reading,” “almost never write.” They don’t write about what they read, don’t summarize, don’t identify main ideas, and so on.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

The results should not be startling. They are the logical outcome of teachers knowing that students were not expected to retain knowledge past the next test, knowing students were going to throw away their learning anyway after the course was over, knowing that they themselves were expected just to get students past checkpoints.  Teachers are dropped inside a system structurally designed to produce superficial learning, so why should they fight it? They are embedded in multiple influences driving students to learn and discard:

1.  Courses begin and end by plan.

2.  No expressed intent to learn a body of knowledge.

3.  No complete hard copy kept permanently.

4. Teaching of small pieces not integrated.

5. Recognition-based tests.

6. Personal interest usually irrelevant.

7. Pretest reviews designed to improve scores.

8.  Scheduled tests encourage cramming.

9. “Final” exam declares an end-point to effort.

10.  Both learning and non-learning equally dismissed.

Teachers are repeatedly bumped into a middle ground which amounts to presenting or exposing students to some new ideas, going over them a little, assigning a little homework, graded, giving a test, and then dropping that material to go on. The critical understanding about this picture is that it can be done entirely with activity instead of effort. Four points help us spot what’s happening:

1. Students love effort.  Effort means expending energy toward a purpose.  Give students a purpose (particularly one toward which they can measure their progress) and they will exert effort until they drop. Sports and computer games require effort to consolidate attention and mobilize physical resources toward an increased score.

2.  School activity is not effort. Students can lay back and almost dare the teacher to involve them, listening passively to what is explained.  They can “go over” the ideas and declare them understood.  Homework usually involves transferring knowledge—book to paper, Internet to notes to paper, paper to paper, and so on.  Tests are made easier by preparation with review questions and are brief, covering only the most recent material.  All of these activities can be done essentially while coasting.  Students need not mobilize sustained effort.

3.  The overlooked effort is calling up an idea from within. This is what students do when they read new material and summarize it in written, well-organized notes; when they explain to a partner what was just presented, when they reorganize and synthesize prior notes, when they rehearse answers for a comprehensive test, when they explain a subject in detail,  when they discuss a new topic in small groups, when they run the “mental movie” of what they have learned. The central, inherently organizing effort is just explaining what they understand—the action accounting for the axiomatic truth in the saying “You learn a subject by teaching it.” Students draw on and hence deepen what they already know when they present it to someone else.

4.  The key to changing the system is maintaining knowledge. The instructional options noted above may at first appear like an unrelated assortment but the unifying factor behind them is the intent. Any school wishing to “challenge” students better needs first to aim for maintained knowledge instead of the transitory, “cover-it-and-go-on” fraudulent substitute for it.  From the start, new sections need to be presented with permanence the explicit goal, which provides a standard for choosing the instructional mode to use.  Think “Is what I ask them to do now going to advance them toward maintained, permanent knowledge?”  Immediately you can answer: Yes, reading deeply and summarizing in notes does this.  Yes, explaining it to each other does this.  Yes, assembling it in larger chunks to explain does this. Yes, marking off the sections with stars and awards and scores does this.  Yes, expecting them to know it anytime does this.

Teachers need to grasp that students’ effort can only result from what they ask students to do.  What they ask students to do currently does not challenge them and does not lead them to permanent knowledge. They need to recognize the changes in what they ask that will make this occur.

The first book of John Jensen’s three-book Practice Makes Permanent series was issued February 22 by Rowman and Littlefield, titled Teaching Students To Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent. Readers interested in previewing the second book due out in mid-summer, titled Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent, can contact him at

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at
07 16, 2012
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