Greg Goelzhauser* has an interesting take on why students don’t learn. Essentially, professors know their subjects very well and erroneously assume students already grasp fundamental concepts that they have no reason to know.

Brett Marston has a slightly different take.

*Permalink bloggered–a phenomenon that I hadn’t seen much lately but have encountered several times today.

FILED UNDER: Education,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. melvin toast says:

    I agree with Brett. Teaching is hard and learning is hard. Also realize that the way you understand something after becoming an expert is vastly different from the way you understood it the first time you encountered it.

    Professors are tempted to teach something the way they understand it because it’s so much more elegant than the crude understanding they had as a student. Of course their elegant level of understanding comes from years of experience.

    Bottomline… good education et. al. comes from repetition and practice. You understand something better everytime you encounter it. Curriculae aren’t generally formulated that way but, as we call in engineering, a waterfall approach. Once you’ve taken a course, you’re supposed to know the material. A better approach is an iterative method where material is presented over and over again.. Of course that may take a long time… perhaps about as long as it takes before YOU start teaching the course.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Melvin: I think that’s right. Plus, frankly, most people who get Ph.D.s in a given subject probably never had any difficulty learning it. While I got to the point in, say, math, that it became difficult for me to grasp, I never had a poli-sci class that I found intellectually difficult. The work was sometimes hard and meeting paper deadlines was a challenge, but I almost always “got” the material itself on the first go-through. So, when teaching the stuff, it was always a little difficult to understand why others didn’t get something so “easy.”

  3. Brett says:

    I’ve learned more from teaching than I have from taking courses, to be honest, which might be another reason why Greg’s analysis is a little off. He’s right about requiring a little empathy from professors, though. Melvin’s right about both teaching and learning being tough. Probably students need to hear more about the latter, though. . .

  4. James Joyner says:

    Brett: Yep, that was my experience as well. I “got” the material easily enough while in school, but didn’t have it mastered in the sense of being able to recite it and make extensive arguments on it until I started teaching.

  5. Greg says:

    Unfortunately, it turns out that my “interesting take” isn’t so interesting; I didn’t intend such broad statement on learning theory. See my blog for a response to Professor Marston.

  6. Ron says:

    Just for information, there is a book called The Idoit’s Guide to Dumies (I think I have the mispelling right), it is labeled as a guide to dumbing down to enjoy modern life.