Fostering intelligence in today’s society

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students, faculty and alumni explore what it means to be ”smart”—savvy, masterful, agile, resourceful and talented—in today’s society as well as how to navigate the alphabet soup of IQ and other standardized test scores and stay sharp throughout life.

As a young elementary school student growing up in Sauk City, Seth Breunig ’10, had a pretty good sense that he was a “smart” kid. “The biggest part of any realization that I was ‘smart’ would have to be either the amount I read as a kid or the way I would win our math facts games in class,” he said.

He practiced. His parents encouraged him.

“One of the best things I had going for me was that there was one student who was definitely smarter than me and many who could easily have been,” he said. “It kept me from thinking there was anything actually ‘special’ about me and made me work my tail off to try to get the No. 2 rank in my high school.”

Breunig’s efforts paid off with a full ride to UW Oshkosh as a National Merit Scholar. As a UWO tennis player, he made the 2009 ESPN magazine’s Men’s College Division Academic All-America At-Large Team.

Even as a straight-A student and now a budding social studies teacher at Holy Angels Parish School in West Bend, Breunig always has been aware his talents have limits.

“I was always seen as ‘smart’ by my peers and teachers, because I was very capable in the types of tasks given to us in school,” he said. “At the same time, I am most definitely ‘dumb’ in a number of areas. When it comes to home construction tasks, visualization, spatial knowledge and even many common sense areas, I struggle … without a doubt.”

Given his experiences and self-analysis, Breunig may be considered more “book smart” than “street smart” and more of a left-brained, analytical thinker than a right-brained, creative type.

Like Breunig, UW Oshkosh junior Parker Lenz, of Appleton, has a knack for math.

“Chemistry and math, mostly calculus, are the two most interesting and exciting subjects I have ever studied. The complexity and applicability of the two are what push me to want to learn more,” he said.

If something piques his interest, Lenz is apt to quickly learn everything he can about the subject.

That focus has served him well as a finance and business major at UWO. In spring 2014, he and 13 others were the first to graduate from an innovative business accelerator program offered by the University’s Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. As part of that effort, he and a partner started an investment company called Atlas Capital Group.

Yet growing up, Lenz never thought of himself as “very intelligent.” “Being street smart comes from being observant, and I have a burning desire to learn new things,” he said. “Test scores or GPA mean very little to me unless I can apply the knowledge to my life.”

A snapshot of intelligence

“Brains have different ways of learning,” said Carleen Vande Zande, UW Oshkosh’s associate vice chancellor for curricular affairs and student academic achievement.

“Some people may pick up new knowledge quickly, while others may struggle and need to practice and go over it,” she added.

Noted Harvard University developmental psychologist Howard Gardner actually identifies eight types of intelligence—linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

UW Oshkosh alumna and National Merit Scholar Jacki Thering ’10, (below) who double majored in music performance and music education, doesn’t necessarily believe her success in school meant she was “smarter” than others.

“If you look at Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I think that I am strong in the areas that schools tend to test. There are many types of intelligence that have value but just aren’t as easily quantified through test scores,” she said.

Because every student is a unique learner, UW Oshkosh alumna Jacki Thering '10, uses a variety of teaching styles from auditory to kinesthetic and visual in her fifth- and sixth-grade orchestra classes in New Berlin.


While Thering is proud of her academic achievements and honors, she doesn’t like to define herself by them. Other words that describe her include introverted, musician, genealogist, dependable, detail-oriented, list-maker and reader.

“I am more than a test score or a GPA,” she said. “I identify more with the work that went into my achievements and the knowledge that I gained in the process than with the grades themselves.”


See more photos of Thering teaching music.

With GPAs and IQ, ACT and SAT scores, students in America are evaluated by a veritable alphabet soup of measures in an attempt to determine how intelligent they are and their capacity to learn.

The average IQ (or intelligence quotient) score—a measure of human intelligence— is 100. People falling between 85 and 115 are considered normal. Those who score in the top 2 percent (typically higher than 130) qualify to join Mensa, the oldest and most well-known, high-IQ society.

Many U.S. colleges and universities require either the SAT or the ACT for entrance. The SAT (originally named the Scholastic Aptitude Test) measures ability to learn with scores ranging from 600 to 2400, while the ACT (American College Testing) assesses readiness for college with more content-related questions and scores ranging from 1 to 36.

“Every person is smart in their own unique and individual ways. And no one test can ever really capture a global perspective of your potential,” said UWO educational psychologist Lori Kroeger. “Each test is just a snapshot that offers some clues or insight into your ability.”

ACT score of 34. SAT of 2320. IQ that qualifies for Mensa. These “snapshots” of UWO junior Jacob Schaubs, of Cedarburg, leave little doubt about his intelligence. He is majoring in German and Spanish.

“Being smart was my definition as a child,” he said. “School has never been a challenge for me, and as such, I have difficulty working hard on any task. I would call myself both lazy and driven, as I undertake vast projects on the side, but I have to fight sloth each step of the way.”

Schaubs learns best by hearing and reading information—often just a cursory glance at the bolded words in a chapter. “Pictures are a wasted effort for my learning style,” he said.

Vande Zande said a smart person is a problem-solver who can think out-of-the-box. “Being smart involves having creativity and ingenuity. It’s about taking what is known and pushing to what is not known by applying knowledge in novel ways.”

Thering also noted that intelligence involves taking the next step to do something with your knowledge. “Create something new or share what you’ve learned with others,” she said.

UW Oshkosh cognitive science philosopher Alice Kyburg studies all aspects of the mind, including linguistics, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence.

“If you get too sucked into ‘group think’ and trends, you aren’t being smart,” she said. “A smart person is someone who looks at what everyone else is taking as a given and says ‘Wait, maybe there’s a different way,’” she said.

UW Oshkosh professor emerita Susan McFadden leads an interactive exercise with people who have dementia and their care partners during a Memory Cafe gathering in Appleton, sponsored by the nonprofit Fox Valley Memory Project.

UWO professor emerita Susan McFadden, who is a tireless advocate for creating dementia-friendly communities through her work with the Fox Valley Memory Project, believes people often have too narrow a view of intelligence.

“A smart person is someone who knows how to ask questions,” she said. “You can have memory for all kinds of information, but you may not know what to question or do with all that information.”

Watch a video of McFadden talking about her efforts to improve the quality of life for people with dementia. 

Teaching to strengths

The most important requirement for learning is a safe environment. “IQ is a measure of our capacity, but there are many barriers to learning that can hinder potential—factors such as hunger, abuse and affordability of education,” said Vande Zande, who oversees the University’s curriculum and assessment of student learning.

At UW Oshkosh, faculty, staff and administrators work to provide that safe environment across campus in classrooms and residence halls alike with programs and plans that focus on everything from health and personal safety to inclusivity and diversity.

To succeed in college, Vande Zande said students need both some ingenuity and some intelligence. “You need to look, study and analyze, and you also have to try, experience and practice. Our curriculum allows students to do both,” she said.

Schaubs has found a home in both the University Honors Program and the theatre department.

“There is a place for everyone at UWO, as well as professors who will encourage. Outside of a pit class, there’s the opportunity for personal connection with the professor and personal growth in the subject. It’s a beautiful intellectual community, but it’s not a community for only intellectuals. All types of brilliance are fostered at UW Oshkosh,” he said.

That’s especially true of UWO’s general education curriculum known as the University Studies Program, which launched in fall 2013.

“Student engagement in learning or ‘active learning’ can foster a higher sense of well-being and meaning,” Vande Zande said. “We invite students into making meaning of their knowledge, which allows for deeper thinking and problem-solving. It’s about learning how to learn—a real self-awareness of how you learn.”

Teachers at all levels use an educational technique called “scaffolding” that moves students to better or deeper understanding by providing more support for learning in the beginning and less over time.

By slowly taking away the scaffolding or supports, Kroeger said educators are “helping students to cultivate their own skills and abilities to reach their potential.”

Kroeger’s own research has helped to develop the scaffolding teachers need to assist students who struggle with math. While there is ample research about cognitive issues related to reading and language disabilities, studies that look at math cognition are lacking.

In one project, Kroeger used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology to “see” what is going on with the human brain when performing math problems. She also studies the types of math errors made by children who struggle with learning math.

Her work suggests piling on more math sheets is not likely the solution, but rather having fewer distractions and displaying fewer problems per page could help with learning math.

A healthy brain

Interestingly, working on a particular skill or problem to the point of mastery isn’t necessarily the best way to stay smart throughout life.

Some other popular prescriptions for a healthy brain involve dosing it with fish oil and training it through online games like Lumosity, which are said to increase attention, memory and other functions through neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to create new pathways through-out life.

McFadden suggests learning something new to keep mentally fit; she recently took up drumming to keep her own neurons firing. She also recommends staying active, eating a Mediterranean diet and adding in a spiritual component and some quiet time to daily life.

Kroeger agrees that while exercising and eating well will keep the brain healthy and working at optimum ability, nothing beats trying something new to stay sharp.

“If you play Sudoko every day, you are going to get really good at Sudoku,” Kroeger said. “But if you want to stay smart, you should learn something new. Try sewing, knitting … something you have never done before … and see how challenging it is to be a novice.”

That’s just how the “street smart,” young entrepreneur Lenz approaches learning.

“If I am watching TV or reading about something and it piques my interest, I become slightly obsessed with the topic and have to learn everything about it.”

Latest comments
  • Refreshing information! There is NO box, and no 2 people think alike! Yet, our educational system expects all round or square pegs to fit in the square holes..No wonder there is such a high failure rate! Such a shame! Everyone has some strengths! Finding them is the secret!

  • Very interesting article, demonstrates the value of diversity and continuing to hone your skills. Not sure if Ms. Kroeger has data to support the “knitting is better than Sudoku” activity but if bringing order to chaos and problem solving weren’t attributes of Sudoku, I better get a pair of needles quick!