George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Overcoming the Principle of Least Effort

Humans naturally try to get by with minimal work. Here are a few simple ways to push your students to think harder.
A student confidently speaks to her class as her teacher smiles in the background.
A student confidently speaks to her class as her teacher smiles in the background.
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Challenging students to dig in and achieve their potential during instructional hours confronts a mighty obstacle: the principle of least effort, the idea that people apply nominal effort to achieve a basically acceptable result instead of pushing themselves in pursuit of greatness.

We might be tempted to conflate low effort with laziness, but that misses an important physiological point: To conserve finite attention funds, our brains are designed to avoid tasks that are cognitively demanding. Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two modes of thinking. The efficient and fairly unconscious mode is System 1. Involuntarily reading a Wheaties box, scorning new “athleisure” clothes, and opening a combination lock are all System 1 mental events.

In contrast, System 2 mental activities are things like solving quadratic equations or summarizing why the Kurdish people don’t occupy a permanent nation-state. System 2 is attention-hungry and physically straining. Your eyes dilate, your breath becomes shallow, your blood pressure quickens, and your muscles bunch.

We shouldn’t fault children for conserving mental energy (and even daydreaming in class enables information processing). However, when we reward Jane Doe for submitting all her classwork and ignore her minimal effort, we reinforce compliant mediocrity.

In order to rewrite the minimum standards in-class playbook, every classroom should include some System 1 work but also System 2, in the form of high-intensity in-class activities (HIICA) to encourage deep learning.

How to Intensify In-Class Activities

You needn’t invent brand-new activities to increase in-class challenges. Simply add HIICA elements to your regularly scheduled assignments. The magic is in the setup.

For example, imagine a whole-class discussion of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew that begins with the question, “Who is the hero?” A studious extrovert will present her argument. If her claim sounds good, the rest of the class will nod their heads in agreement—simple concurrence aligns with the principle of least effort. To alter this scenario in a way that fires up System 2 for the entire class, ask your students to free write an answer to the question before starting the discussion. That way, there is no way for students to escape the cognitive challenge.

7 More Ways to Integrate High-Intensity In-Class Activities

  1. Writing: During in-class writing, direct students to experiment with the powerful sentence patterns of expert writers. Randy Rambo’s collection has 16 diverse examples, including this lilting one from essayist and science fiction author Scott Russell Sanders: “Unlike novelists and playwrights, who lurk behind the scenes while distracting our attention with the puppet show of imaginary characters, unlike scholars and journalists, who quote the opinions of others and shelter behind the hedges of neutrality, the essayist has nowhere to hide.”
  2. Oral arguments: In addition to traditional speech expectations, ask presenters to emulate the five rhetorical tactics Elon Musk uses to make pitches magical and compelling. The point is to activate communication skills that can one day empower your graduates to transform the world.
  3. Reading: Speed up students’ words-per-minute (WPM) reading rate. When learners paste content-related text into AccelaReader, the free online tool flashes the words at a user-identified pace. After students determine their most comfortable reading speeds, have them increase the WPM by 25 each subsequent session​.
  4. Group work: Direct student teams to use reflective listening strategies. Assess performance after 10 minutes and then encourage the teams to apply what they learned during the rest of the activity.
  5. Research: As they submit drafts of their research papers, students can also turn in researcher journals that narrate their experiences with databases, websites, and search terms as well as any epiphanies and/or obstacles they experienced. Or teach students to format their inquiry as a “multigenre research paper.”
  6. Discussions: Assigning roles encourages learners to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise attempt. In her classes, Sheila Valencia implements panel discussions on the previous night’s reading. Three student panelists are randomly chosen to comment for two minutes each on important, interesting, or controversial ideas in the text. And two student interviewers are selected to ask the panelists questions. All students are forewarned to prepare statements and questions in advance in case their names are drawn.
  7. Review: Add competition to intensify in-class reviews. Try Cult of Pedagogy’s Crumple & Shoot competition and inform the class that an individual assessment will follow the game.

More Strategies for Intensifying Common In-Class Activities

  • Facilitate what Dave Stuart Jr. calls pop-up debates.
  • Play “beat the clock” by providing less processing time.
  • Ask students to find answers from primary and secondary sources—not just the textbook.
  • Direct learners to highlight elements in their essays that align with SOAPSTone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, Tone).
  • Dare kids to be so creative that they blow your hair back.

Tips for Creating Successful High-Intensity In-Class Activities

In the absence of concrete performance criteria, kids often coast. Therefore, keep in-class assignments unambiguous (an exception is project-based learning, wherein students benefit from solving fuzzy, real-life problems).

Anticipate bottlenecks. For example, when children are solving a difficult problem, having to remember multiple assignment steps can create cognitive overload and turn their working memory into slush. Solution: Supply a checklist of steps to free up working RAM.

Pushback from students reluctant to shift into System 2 is likely. Less resistance will occur, however, if you articulate the purpose of high-intensity in-class activities: to accelerate learning through productive struggle—similar to high-intensity interval training at the gym. Just ensure that your HIICA align with content objectives. The ultimate goal isn’t to callously slam kids with impossible class activities—it’s to have them reach into their deepest selves and meet the day’s challenges like champions.

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Dena Vandenbosch's picture

Educators often lament the lack of effort they think they are seeing with their students. This article points out how teachers are unwittingly making it easy for students to get by without engaging their brains. Thanks for the ideas!

Andre G's picture

Great ideas. I think this is a problem that all educators have to deal with: minimalism. Thanks for sharing.

Judy Harris's picture

I believe you have some great ideas on how to raise student engagement, thereby raising effort. However, your tone made me internally ask you to "check your privilege" with regards to how you refer to students. I believe that students come to the classroom at a variety of levels of "ready to learn" and your column assumes they are at the highest possible level: fed, clothed, adequate sleep, not suffering from trauma, and intellectually/linguistically able to absorb the content. In my experience, student effort is directly related to how much effort they perceive they are receiving from their teachers and in direct relation to how strong the relationship is with their teacher. From a purely theoretical standpoint, I am sure you are correct, I can't argue with that. But, as with all research, what are the variables that have been considered or not considered in studying this. One last aside, your strategies are terrific, all are formative student assessments that accomplished teachers should and can be using in the classroom that support student engagement.

Crystal89's picture

I agree with Judy's concern. I was thinking I'd research more group discussion and groupwork strategies to address this.

Bill Carbone's picture
Bill Carbone
Director of Education and Partnerships for Steven Van Zandt's Rock and Roll Forever Foundation

There are so many great ideas in your list that I'll be reading for the next few days.

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