There’s something we’re not teaching our most talented students.

If you’re the parent of an advanced student, you’re probably well aware that your child actively searches out more and more things to learn. It’s probably a struggle to keep providing them with new material they find interesting and challenging.

Or maybe your student is a perfectionist. They study diligently, learning everything by heart to make sure they score 100% on every test. Anything less may even bring tears.

All through school, these students—both the ones who focus on perfect scores, and the rarer ones who seem to achieve those scores without effort—earn excellent grades. They look at their report cards, and see nothing but top marks.

But then they land in college, and face their first truly challenging class. Commonly, it’s math, but college freshmen can also be found seriously doubting their abilities after receiving a less-than-stellar grade on their first English essay, anthropology quiz, or chemistry lab report.  

Suddenly, students who’ve spent years thinking of themselves as naturally talented find that they’re just not “getting it” anymore. Those used to memorizing everything find their usual procedures don’t work when asked to truly understand a topic instead of merely rehearsing and repeating facts they’ve learned about it. This isn’t just a college phenomenon, either—it also happens in extracurricular pursuits (like math competitions) as kids begin competing at increasingly higher levels.

Getting things wrong means you’re learning.

It can be profoundly unpleasant for a student who’s never faced truly challenging material to encounter it for the first time.

Some students who haven’t learned how to reach out for help may feel pressure to cheat. Others may even quit studying fields they used to love and settle for majors that seem less difficult.

That’s why, as students move beyond the basics, it’s crucial for them to see material that actually challenges them. Young learners need opportunities to try answering questions that push their abilities. They won’t get everything right, of course—but that’s exactly the point. Advanced students deserve to see that failing isn’t a sign that they’re secretly stupid. Instead, they should learn that hard things are just that: hard. And when, with hard work and persistence, they eventually get it right, they’ll be even more proud of their accomplishments.

Making failure less scary will also mean that when students hit walls in college and in life, they’ll know how to approach the harder problems they’re facing. It’s not uncommon for tough classes at top universities to have tests so hard that a 50% is curved to an A. After all, these schools are trying to train future doctors, researchers, and engineers. Professionals in these fields constantly come up against problems that don’t have easy solutions, and college classes play an important role in helping their students get used to facing challenges like these.

In years to come, how will your student cope with hard college classes if they’re not being challenged right now?

Dealing with challenges means more than not giving up on after they’ve gotten a B for the first time (although persistence and responding to constructive criticism are crucial life skills). It means all the things that go along with trying to learn something truly difficult.

We like to call this kind of learning ‘problem solving,’ as a reminder that the best education usually involves active engagement with challenging, open-ended material.

Students who learn how to problem solve also learn:

  • How to articulate what they do or don’t understand
  • How to ask for help
  • How to cope with frustration
  • How to work past frustration and arrive at a solution
  • How to evaluate ideas—determining which ideas to pursue for the solution, and when to cut losses on ideas that just aren’t going to work
  • How to view knowledge as a tool
  • How to use those tools in new and creative ways to produce truly new information (rather than simply reproducing existing ideas). Human calculators aren’t very effective…or needed.

This list isn’t all-encompassing, but it does showcase just how much more students learn when they’re faced with difficult material and why problem solving is necessary.

Gifted students need material that really challenges them in order for them to learn efficiently.

In order to grow up to be innovators, doctors, lawyers, or rocket scientists, students already need to be learning what it means to think deeply and solve hard problems.

The same strategies that students learn to cope with truly difficult math can be applied to problems far beyond Prealgebra or Geometry classes.

Unfortunately, it can be hard for parents and teachers to embrace the idea that they may be failing the bright students who earn 100% on everything. Kids who already know the material perfectly aren’t learning what they need to, and their first experience struggling in an academic subject may well be a struggle for everyone involved. It’s easy to say in an article like this that students should be challenged more often—but when you’re a parent looking at your child’s report card, it can be hard to remember that less than stellar marks are an indicator that they are being challenged appropriately.

Don’t take that the wrong way: it’s definitely great for kids to do well in school, and they should be proud of their achievements.

But for more impactful, long-lasting learning, students need material that asks them to think deeply before getting the right answer. They deserve the opportunity to problem-solve.

How are you providing that material for your child?

Is your child developing the skills to tackle difficult problems?

Challenging math is one way to do that while also providing the skills your child will need for their academic career and beyond. Why not hit two birds with one stone?
Have them hone their skills with Alcumus! A free, gamified practice program that adapts to the needs of the student. Check it out for yourself here!

Subscribe for news, tips and advice from AoPS

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
By clicking this button, I consent to receiving AoPS communications, and confirm that I am over 13, or under 13 and already a member of the Art of Problem Solving community.