Background Readings

Raising the Achievement of all Students:
Teaching for Successful Intelligence

Robert J. Sternberg, Yale University

January 19, 2002
(To appear in: Educational Psychology Review)


This article describes how we can teach students more effectively by teaching for successful intelligence. Teaching for successful intelligence involves instructing and assessing analytically, creatively, and practically, as well as for memory. Such teaching helps students recognize and capitalize on strengths, and at the same time recognize and correct or compensate for weaknesses. The articles describes how to teach for successful intelligence, and presents empirical evidence that teaching for successful intelligence really works in the classroom in raising student achievement.

Raising the Achievement of all Students:
Teaching for Successful Intelligence

Our goal is to raise the achievement of all students. The question, of course, is how to do it. We think we have a way.

The Problem

The problem is that some children seem to benefit just fine from the schooling they get, but others do not. Teachers try very hard to reach all students, but rather frequently, find that there are some students who just seem to be hard to reach. There can be many reasons why certain students are hard to reach-disabilities, disorders, motivational problems, health problems, and so forth. One reason, though, can be the mismatch between a pattern of strengths and weaknesses on the part of the student and the particular range of methods that a teacher is using in trying to reach that student. "Teaching for successful intelligence" provides a series of techniques for reaching as many students as possible (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2000; Sternberg & Spear-Swerling, 1996; Sternberg & Williams, 2002).

Teaching for successful intelligence is based on a psychological theory, the theory of successful intelligence (Sternberg, 1997). This theory is quite different from traditional theories of intelligence, which posit that intelligence is just a single construct, sometimes called g, or general intelligence, and sometimes known in terms of the IQ measure. The methods based on this new theory are not the only series of teaching methods based on a new psychological theory of intelligence. Gardner (1983, 1999) has proposed a different theory, with somewhat different, although sometimes overlapping methods of instruction. But I believe that our methods are particularly effective, and, moreover, have hard empirical data to support their usefulness.

Permit me to give a concrete example. When I took my introductory psychology course, I was very motivated to become a psychologist. I received a grade of "C" in the course. The grade as extremely discouraging to me, as was my instructor's comment that "There is a famous Sternberg in psychology, and judging from this grade, there won't be another one." I decided that I did not have the ability to major in psychology, so I switched to mathematics. This was a fortunate decision for me, because on the midterm in advanced mathematics, I got a grade of "F." Now, the C was looking pretty good, so I switched back to psychology. I received higher grades in subsequent courses, and today, I am a psychologist and was just recently elected President of the American Psychological Association, a national organization of about 155,000 psychologists.

The problem is that many children who might like to study a given subject area-whether language arts, mathematics, history, science, foreign language, or whatever-may give up because they think they cannot succeed in studying it. They may either stop taking courses in the subject area, or just give up in the courses they are taking. Teaching for successful intelligence can give these students the chance to succeed that they might not otherwise have.

What is Teaching for Successful Intelligence?

Teaching for successful intelligence involves a way of looking at the teaching-learning process that broadens the kinds of activities and assessments teachers traditionally do. Many good teachers "teach for successful intelligence" spontaneously. But, for one reason or another, most do not. Teaching for successful intelligence involves, at minimum, using a set of prompts that encourages students to engage in memory learning as well as analytical, creative, and practical learning.

The key ideas are these:

Key 1: Teaching for Memory Learning

Most conventional teaching is teaching for memory learning. Teaching for successful intelligence does not ask teachers to stop what they already are doing. Rather, it asks teachers to build on it. Teaching for memory is the foundation for all other teaching, because students cannot think critically (or any other way) about what they know if they do not know anything. Teaching for memory basically involves assisting or assessing students' memory of the who (e.g., "Who did something?"), what (e.g., "What did they do?"), where ("Where did they do it?"), when ("When did they do it?"), why ("Why did they do it?"), and how ("How did they do it?") of learning.

Here are some examples of teaching and assessing for memory learning:

  • Recall a fact they have learned, such as the first president of the United States, or the product of 7 x 8, or the chemical formula for sodium.
  • Recognize a fact they have learned, such as whether the first president of the United States was Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or Lincoln; or whether the product of 7 x 8 is 54, 56, 48, or 60; or whether the chemical formula for sodium is So, Na, Sd, or Nd.
  • Match one set of items of one kind with another set of items of another kind, such as the list of presidents-Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln-with the list of numbers, 2, 1, 16, 3; or the elements hydrogen, sodium, oxygen, and potassium with the list of abbreviations H, K, Na, and O.
  • Verify statements, such as whether the statement "George Washington was the first President of the United States," or "The atomic number for uranium is 100," is true or false.
  • Repeat what you have learned, such as a poem, an article of the Constitution, a scientific formula, or a mathematical formula.

Key 2: Teaching for Analytical Learning

Teachers who teach for successful intelligence do not only teach for memory, because some students are not particularly adept as memory learners. I, myself, was not, as I mentioned above, and am not until this day. Many students have the ability to learn, but fail miserably when they sit down and try to memorize a set of isolated facts, or even when they are asked merely to recall a set of isolated facts.

Here are examples of teaching and assessing for analytical learning and thinking:

  • Analyze an issue, such as why Truman decided to bomb Hiroshima, or why certain elements are radioactive, or why children today still find Tom Sawyer entertaining, or why how to solve a particular algebraic factoring problem.
  • Evaluate an issue, such as why unlimited political contributions can lead to corruption in a political system, how the Internet is vulnerable to catastrophic sabotage, what part of speech a certain word is, or how best to make a cake.
  • Explain how the U.S. Electoral College works, or a wool blanket can produce static electricity, or how to solve an arithmetic word problem, or why a character in a short story acted the way she did.
  • Compare and contrast two or more items, such as the systems of government in the United States and England, or igneous and sedimentary rocks, or two different ways of proving a geometric theorem, or two novels.
  • Judge the value of characteristics of something, such as a law, or a scientific experiment, or a poem, or the metric system of measurement.

Key 3: Teaching for Creative Learning

Teaching for successful intelligence also involves encouraging students to use and develop their creative-thinking skills. It recognizes that some students learn best when they are allowed to find their own ways to learn material, and when they are left free to explore ideas that go beyond those likely to be in books or in lectures.

Here are some examples of teaching and assessing for creative learning and thinking:

  • Create a game for learning the names of the states, or a poem, or a new numerical operation, or a scientific experiment.
  • Invent a toy, or a new way of solving a difficult mathematics problem, or a new system of government that builds on old systems of government, or a haiku
  • Explore new ways of solving a mathematics problem beyond those taught by the teacher, or how to achieve a certain chemical reaction, or different ways of reading so as to improve your reading comprehension, or the nature of volcanoes
  • Imagine what it would be like to live in another country, or what will happen if temperatures on the Earth keep rising, or what Picasso might have been thinking when he painted Guernica, or what might happen if the United States switched to the metric system of measurement.
  • Suppose that people were paid to inform on their neighbors to the political party in power-what would happen?, or that all lakes instantly dried up-what would happen?, or that schools stopped teaching mathematics-what would happen, or that Germany had won World War II-what would have happened?

Key 4: Teaching for Practical Learning

Some students are primarily practical learners. They do not catch on unless they see some kind of practical use for what they are learning.

Here are some examples of teaching and assessing for practical learning and thinking:

  • Put into practice what you have learned about measurement in baking a cake; your foreign-language instruction in speaking with a foreigner; your knowledge of soils to determine whether a particular plant can grow adequately in a given soil.
  • Use your knowledge of percentages or decimals in computing discounts; a lesson learned by a character in a novel in your own life; your knowledge of the effects of particulate matter in the atmosphere on vision to figure out whether a car driving behind you in the fog is substantially closer than it appears to be.
  • Utilize a physical formula to figure out the speed at which an actual falling object will actually hit the ground; your understanding of cultural customs to figure out why someone from another cultures behaves in a way you consider to be strange; the lesson you learned from a fable or a proverb to change your actually behavior with other people.
  • Implement a plan for holding a classroom election; a strategy for conserving energy in your home; what you have learned in a driver-education class in your actual driving; a psychological strategy for persuading people in raising money for charity.
  • Apply your knowledge of political campaigns in history to running for class president; your knowledge of the principles of mixture problems to mixing paints to achieve a certain color; your understanding of the principles of good speaking to giving a persuasive talk.

Does Teaching for Successful Intelligence Work?

Teachers want-indeed, some demand--some level of assurance that, if they take the trouble to use a method of teaching, it really will work. We have done a series of studies showing that teaching for successful intelligence really does work. The common element of all these studies is the demonstration that when students are taught for successful intelligence, they are better able to capitalize on their strengths and to correct or compensate for their weaknesses, so that they learn at higher levels.

In a first study (Sternberg, Grigorenko, Ferrari, & Clinkenbeard, 1999), for example, we identified high school children for their patterns of analytical, creative, and practical abilities. We then taught these children a rigorous psychology course that either fit their pattern of abilities particularly well, or did not do so. For example, a highly creative child might receive an instructional program that emphasized creative learning and thinking (good fit), or one that emphasized memory learning (not so good fit). We found that children who were taught in a way that, at least some of the time, enabled them to capitalize on their strengths, outperformed students who were not so taught.

In a second study (Sternberg, Torff, & Grigorenko, 1998a, 1998b), we taught third-grade students social studies and eighth-grade science in one of three ways. Either we emphasized just memory learning, or primarily analytical (critical) thinking, or teaching for successful intelligence (memory, analytical, creative, and practical learning). All students received the same quantity of instruction and for the same time period, and all students received the same assessments for memory learning as well as for analytical, creative, and practical learning. We found that students who were taught for successful intelligence outperformed students who were taught either for memory or critical thinking, pretty much regardless of grade level, subject matter, or type of assessment.

In a third study (Grigorenko, Jarvin, & Sternberg, in press), we helped primarily inner-city urban students at the middle and high school levels develop their reading skills. At the middle-school level, reading was taught as a separate subject-matter area, whereas at the high-school level, reading was infused into other subject-matter areas, such as English, science, foreign-language, and history instruction. Students were taught either for successful intelligence or in a standard way that emphasized memory-based instruction. The students who were taught for successful intelligence outperformed the students taught in the more conventional way on all assessments, whether for vocabulary or reading comprehension, and whether emphasizing memory-based, analytical, creative, or practical thinking.


Successful intelligence involves teaching students for memory, as well as analytically, creatively and practically. It does not mean teaching everything in three ways. Rather, it means alternating teaching strategies so that teaching reaches (almost) every student at least some of the time. Teaching for successful intelligence also means helping students to capitalize on their strengths and to correct or compensate for their weaknesses. We believe we have good evidence to support teaching for successful intelligence. Teaching for successful intelligence improves learning outcomes, even if the only outcome measure is straightforward memory learning. We therefore encourage teachers seriously to consider use of this teaching method in their classrooms-at all grade levels and for all subject-matter areas.

Teaching for successful intelligence potentially provides benefits at multiple levels. It helps students to achieve at a level that is commensurate with their skills, rather than letting valuable skills, which could be used in facilitating learning, go to waste. It helps schools reach higher levels of achievement as a whole. And in these days of school accountability, reaching higher average scores is a goal virtually every school wants to reach. Finally, it helps society make better use of its human resources. There is no reason for a society to waste its most precious resource-its human talent. Teaching for successful intelligence helps ensure that talent will not go to waste.


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Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Successful intelligence. New York: Plume.
Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight.
Sternberg, R. J., Grigorenko, E. L., Ferrari, M., & Clinkenbeard, P. (1999). A triarchic analysis of an aptitude-treatment interaction. European Journal of Psychological Assessment,15(1), 1-11.
Sternberg, R. J., & Spear-Swerling, L. (1996). Teaching for thinking. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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Sternberg, R. J., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E. L. (1998b). Teaching triarchically improves school achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 374-384.
Sternberg, R. J., & Williams, W. M. (2002). Educational Psychology. Boston: Allyn-Bacon.

Author Notes

Preparation of this article was supported by Grant REC-9979843 from the National Science Foundation and by a government grant under the Javits Act Program (Grant No. R206R000001) as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U. S. Department of Education. Grantees undertaking such projects are encouraged to express freely their professional judgment. This article, therefore, does not necessarily represent the positions or the policies of the U.S. government, and no official endorsement should be inferred. Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Robert J. Sternberg, Director, PACE Center, Yale University, Box 208358, New Haven, CT 06520-8358. E-mail:

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Last updated at August 30, 2002 by Xiaojing Kou