How Much Challenge is Enough?

Yesterday, I blogged about student motivation. I listed 5 factors that Malone and Lepper (1987) suggest to increase intrinsic motivation in students; challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation vs competition and recognition. Today’s blog will centre on CHALLENGE.

“If we are not allowed to deal with small problems, we will be destroyed by slightly larger ones. When we come to understand this, we live our lives not avoiding problems, but welcoming them them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.”
Jim Stovall, The Ultimate Gift

So, how much challenge is the right amount for our students? How can we design challenges so that students don’t become dis-empowered? How can we design challenges so that students feed off these challenges and are excited to achieve more?

Here are a few tips I pilfered from and trialed in my own context…

Focus on goals

At the beginning of each term, I ask students the following question “If you could improve on any aspect of (insert subject area here) that would make the biggest difference for your learning, what would it be?”

Once we’ve established this, I guide students through the SMART goals process which helps them to drill down into the steps required to achieve each goal. If you haven’t used SMART, click on the link here.

Level of Certainty

I ensure that students choose goals that they actually have control over. A goal such as, “I’d like to make it into the school representative team for swimming,” is unhelpful as the decision for team members lays in the hands of someone else. Whereas, a goal such as, “I will learn my 6, 7 and 8 times tables in 3 weeks,” allows the locus of control to be in the hands of the student.

Goals also need to be achievable. If there is not a degree of certainty about achieving the goal, students will feel overwhelmed and disengage with the goal. I encourage students to begin with easier goals and build up to more difficult goals.

Effective Feedback

Students are motivated by feedback when it occurs frequently and is clear, constructive and encouraging. Comments such as, “Good work!” are encouraging but vague.  Additionally, “Try harder!” is clear but lacks encouragement. Whereas, comments such as, “You really seem to understand Place Value to the Ten Thousands. Your examples are all accurate- well done. Are you able to explain how to round to Ten Thousands?”


It’s helpful to encourage students to complete their goals but explaining the effect on their self-esteem. Comments such as, “Imagine how good you’ll feel when you…” are helpful for students to understand what intrinsic motivation is and how it feels.

Which of these challenge tips will you implement tomorrow?

Meanwhile, if you read my PBL blog the other day, here’s a link to designing right-sized PBL challenges.


2 thoughts on “How Much Challenge is Enough?

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