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Why Donít Students Like School?

by Daniel T. Willingham - April 07, 2009

This commentary summarizes recent work in cognitive psychology on interest to explain why it is that people like to learn new things, but often say that they don't like school.

Ask ten high school students whether they like to learn new things. Most will say “yes.” Now ask them whether they like school and most will say “no.” Why the inconsistency?

A cognitive psychologist’s point of view can help to resolve this dilemma. First, although most people believe that humans are good at thinking, it is actually the weakest of our mental faculties. (I’m defining “thinking” broadly as mental work, for example, reading a poem, doing your taxes, evaluating an interpretation of historical events, or sizing up an investment opportunity.) Our minds are biased against thinking, because thinking is slow and effortful. In addition, it’s error-prone; it may not even produce an answer at all, much less a good one.

Our ability to remember, in contrast, is rapid, effortless, and much more reliable. That is why memory is the mental process of first resort.  When confronted with a problem, we will usually consult memory to see whether we have solved it (or a similar one) before. If so, and if the solution was satisfactory, we are likely to use that solution again. For example, when planning a 100-mile trip to visit a friend, one could turn the task into a bracing cognitive challenge, poring over maps, considering which route offers the least traffic, best scenery, most convenient gas stations, and so on. But more likely one will rely on memory and simply take the route used before. Teachers are confronted with a roomful of students whose minds are not designed for thinking, but for saving them from having to think.

So how do we square this apparent bias not to think with people’s claim that they like to learn new things? In fact people do spend their leisure time in activities that require thought: solving Sudoku puzzles, reading challenging fiction, and so on. The resolution to this apparent contradiction is that people like to work on problems if they solve them. Solving problems brings pleasure, a snap of satisfaction. But there is no pleasure in working at a difficult problem with the feeling that you’re not making progress. And solving a trivially easy problem—for example, an adult solving a child’s crossword puzzle—is no better. That’s not really solving a problem, it’s just pulling facts from memory. For mental work to bring pleasure, the right level of difficulty is crucial.

The solvable puzzle lies at the heart of a theory of reading and interest proposed by Kintsch (1980). Although other theories had suggested that novelty and surprise arouse interest (e.g., Schank, 1979), Kintsch emphasized that an event must not merely be unpredictable; it must be postdictable. That is, it must initially be surprising, but then be understandable with a bit of thought. Thus, two friends attending an avant-garde concert may be equally baffled by the music initially, but the more musically knowledgeable person may come to understand the composer’s intent, and will thus find the music more interesting than her friend who is merely puzzled.

This hypothesis has been elaborated by Silvia (2008), who suggested that interest is engendered by an appraisal process: that is, a process by which we evaluate the potential interest of something before we delve into it. If we perceive an event to be novel and complex, but also comprehensible, we find it intriguing and worthy of continued thought. Tasks that lack complexity seem too easy. Tasks that lack comprehensibility seem too hard.

Note that this discussion of interest has omitted content. That may seem odd—when we describe our interests, we usually focus on content: “I’m into opera,” or “British history fascinates me.” Indeed, some psychological theories of interest (e.g., Schiefele, 1999) refer to content and it is likely that content moderates interest. But it must be admitted that interest varies within the same person from situation to situation. I am interested in cognitive psychology, but I certainly find myself bored at some talks during professional conferences. And we’ve all had the experience of watching a documentary on a subject that we thought didn’t interest us, only to find ourselves fascinated.

This analysis gives us a new perspective on what it means for something to be “interesting.” When confronted by a new problem we rapidly size it up for difficulty: with a bit of effort, am I likely to get that little jolt of pleasure that comes from solving a problem? If the problem is too hard or too easy, the answer is “no” and we are unlikely to work at it for long.  People say they like to learn new things because understanding new things (and other forms of successful problem solving) brings pleasure. They often say they don’t like school, however, because it is difficult to arrange things so that all students in a classroom experience a series of mental challenges of the right complexity.

Can school be made more interesting? The framework described here suggests three measures. First, teachers must be sure that students understand the problems to be solved. Especially in this age of accountability, there is a temptation for classwork to become a series of answers. Learning answers in the absence of well-framed questions is not interesting. Second, it probably will not be effective to rely on a single question to propel interest for more than ten minutes or so. Teachers might take a lesson from narrative structure. Writers going back to Aristotle (trans. 1997) have recognized that the interest of readers (or viewers of plays) is transitory, and that even though a plot may be driven by a primary question (will Scarlett and Rhett find love?), there must be complications, subplots, to maintain interest. So too, a lesson plan may have a primary question to be answered, but well-paced complications as the students explore possible solutions will help maintain interest. Third, teachers must be aware of and act on variations in student preparation. The “sweet spot” of problem difficulty will vary across students, and within a student, across subjects.

In truth, we likely flatter ourselves when we say that we like to learn new things. Do we seize every opportunity to learn something new? More likely, we enjoy learning new things under the right circumstances. Our emerging understanding of what sparks interest can help teachers better create those circumstances in the classroom and so increase students’ liking for and motivation in school.


Aristotle (trans. 1997). Poetics (M. Heath, Trans.) New York: Penguin.

Kintsch, W. (1980). Learning from text, levels of comprehension, or: Why anyone would read a story anyway. Poetics, 9, 87-98.

Schank, R. C. (1979) Interestingness: Controlling inferences. Artificial Intelligence, 12, 273-297.

Schiefele, U. (1999). Interest and learning from text. Scientific Study of Reading, 3, 257-280.

Silvia, P. J. (2008). Interest—the curious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 57-60.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 07, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15609, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:30:23 PM

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