By Patricia A. Alexander, Jean Mullan Professor of Literacy, Distinguished Scholar Teacher, University of Maryland

Today’s educational system is contributing to an undesirable and unanticipated problem—the production of many achievement-oriented, high-performing students who are, at best, mediocre learners. This is a bold and controversial claim that demands substantiation; beginning with what distinguishes good students from good learners.   

Good students are those who understand what is being asked of them and who have the basic cognitive capability, socioemotional disposition, and willingness to meet those expectations. These individuals are task-oriented and goal-directed, where the tasks are externally determined and the goals are getting the grades or passing the tests. And, these students will work to keep the requisite information in memory for as long as needed to complete the task at hand; that is, to perform well. In effect, good students figure out what gets the grades and what teachers want from them, and they deliver. They quickly apprehend the rules of the game called “schooling,” and they play the game with aplomb. Not bad, right? 

Good learners, by comparison, not only perform as well as good students, but they also have additional cognitive, social, and emotional characteristics that separate them from their “good student” counterparts. For one, they enjoy learning for its own sake. They have an abiding interest in or passion for the content—at least for some subjects—and pursue tasks and goals of their own choosing and not just those required of them (Alexander, 2014). They are more critical-analytic in their thinking and seek to understand and question the world around them (Murphy, Rowe, Ramani, & Silverman, 2014). They are curious and reflective by nature and willing to probe even accepted notions and practices (Alexander et al., 2011). And, they want to retain what is learned well beyond the test or course—to make it part of their knowledge base in an enduring way. In effect, while good students are relatively skilled at information management, good learners are actively engaged in knowledge building.

How is this distinction between good students and good learners evidenced in the children and youth who populate today’s classrooms? When you have the opportunity to engage with students who have succeeded within the formal educational system, you become aware of several troubling patterns. For one, these students’ academic journeys have frequently led to a decrease in their motivations to learn—the longer they are in school, the less enamored they become with learning (Amrein & Berliner, 2003). Also, there is a growing perception that school is a place they are expected to be, whether they are learning or not. Concomitantly, schooling is their “job” or a chore that must be endured, rather than an opportunity or an experience to be relished.

Moreover, among today’s students, there is often the view that it is the products of the experience (e.g., grades, promotion, and degrees) that really matters, rather than the knowledge and ways of knowing that might be realized as a consequence (Alexander, 2010). Today’s students rightfully want to ascertain what precisely must be done to get the grade and whether what they are reading, hearing, or seeing will be tested—for what gets tested is what merits their time and energy. They also will work to retain what is being studied for as long as it serves their needs, which often means until the tests or the course are completed. Then, they are free to rid themselves of that information rather than burden themselves with it over the long haul. 

When one compiles this image of today’s students, you begin to recognize that it is quite possible—and even likely—that many can exit their PreK through 12th grade years having honed those academic processes that allow them to achieve within the formal educational system without ever instilling those habits of mind or social-motivational attributes that make them truly lifelong learners. Does this suggest that there is some inherent flaw within today’s students that must be excised, or does the problem lie within the educational system itself? 

From the evidence, it would appear that there is nothing wrong with students—they are exhibiting the behaviors and motivations that are appropriate for the educational complex in which they live and work. These information managers are precisely what the system, if not society, demands. Therefore, if there is a true desire for children and youth to become good learners (and not just good students), there needs to be fundamental changes in the educational system itself. Without significant transformation, Division 15 President Karen Harris’ vision of communities that are “educationally purposeful, open, just, disciplined, caring, and celebrative” cannot be realized.

What might those fundamental changes be? For one, the role of high-stakes testing must be reevaluated. Schools, for many students, seem to function as test preparation institutions rather than havens of learning. For another, there needs to be more teaching and less mentioning going on within classrooms. If something is worth knowing, then it merits the educational time and attention it requires. Related to this point, schools should consider teaching more about less. The current tendency to “cover the content” would seem to exacerbate the drive to manage information rather than to knowledge build. Further, there should be ample opportunities for students to explore topics of personal interest and relevance—the seeds of motivation that might take root. And, finally, educators cannot merely assume that critical, reflective thinking will result from formal schooling. Such habits of mind must be taught, fostered, nurtured, and rewarded within meaningful activities pertinent to domains of study (e.g., mathematics, literacy, or science) and to the learners themselves—what Alexander (2003) called rooted relevance.

If such orchestrated efforts can be instilled within the educational system, there is reason to hope that today’s A+ students can also become A+ learners.

This post is part of a special series contributed in response to Karen R. Harris’ Division 15 Presidential theme, “Impacting Education Pre-K to Gray.” President Harris has emphasized the importance of impacting education by maintaining and enriching the ways in which Educational Psychology research enhances and impacts education at all ages. Such impact depends upon treating competing viewpoints with thoughtfulness and respect, thus allowing collaborative, cross/interdisciplinary work that leverages what we know from different viewpoints. She has also argued that we need to set aside paradigm biases and reject false dichotomies as we review research for publication or funding, develop the next generation of researchers, support early career researchers, and work with each other and the larger field.


Alexander, P. A. (2003). The development of expertise: The journey from acclimation to proficiency. Educational Researcher, 32(8), 10-14.

Alexander, P. A. (2010). Through myth to reality: Reframing education as academic development. Early Education and Development, 21(5), 633-651.

Alexander, P. A. (2014, October). Information management versus knowledge building: Implications for text-based learning in on-line and off-line contexts.  Keynote at the Norwegian Graduate School of Educational Science’s National PhD Days, Stavangar, Norway.

Alexander, P. A., Dinsmore, D. L., Fox, E., Grossnickle, E. M., Loughlin, S. M., Maggioni, L., Parkinson, M. M., & Winters, F. I.  (2011). Higher-order thinking and knowledge: Domain-general and domain-specific trends and future directions.  In G. Schraw & D. Robinson (Ed.), Assessment of higher order thinking skills (pp. 47-88).  Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishers.

Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2003). The effects of high-stakes testing on student motivation and learning. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 32-38.

Murphy, P. K., Rowe, M. L., Ramani, G., & Silverman, R. (2014). Promoting critical-analytic thinking in children and adolescents at home and in school. Educational Psychology Review, 26(4), 561-578.

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