5 Ways to Make Tasks More Challenging

Making tasks challenging is incredibly difficult. A lot of the time, we simply don’t know how well learners will understand our instruction when they have such varying levels of prior knowledge. 

We face a variety of issues in implementing challenge:
– How quickly some students disengage
– Anticipating failure and reducing the level of challenge
– Seeing learners struggle and then overscaffolding
– Not giving enough time 
– Relying on overly familiar strategies
– Anticipating where learners will be in a sequence of learning
– Hard to challenge pupils when you do not know them well

It’s also difficult to define challenge. Is it dictated by….
– the amount of time we give for the task?
– the amount of effort or cognitive demand we expect from the learner?
– the number of steps involved?
– the level of prior knowledge they have to access? 

So, challenge = difficult to define and difficult to design.

What can we do to introduce challenge then? 

  1. Productive struggle/productive failure – the jury is out on this with conflicting research into its efficacy. Is it better to have instruction followed by problem solving or problem solving followed by instruction? Productive struggle/failure argues the latter to be the case. In maths for example, the evidence seems to point towards I-PS for younger children with some benefit to PS-I for children of secondary age and up as shown here – https://twitter.com/Mr_AlmondED/status/1594271352340578307. The intention of productive struggle is to engage the learner with the task, starting to think about what the task is asking of them – task completion does not matter at this initial stage. 
  2. If we are to use productive struggle as a strategy, Dooley (2012) provides very useful advice in what to do next in the form of ‘consolidating tasks’. These are tasks that are similar in form/nature to the productive struggle task, provided later on in a learning sequence. The aim of such a task is to show the learner that even though they struggled initially, they can now complete the task and therefore have learned something/overcome challenge.  This lends credence to that counter-intuitive idea that demotivating pupils in the short-term is better for motivation in the long-term. 
  3. I mentioned earlier that one issue with challenge is that we anticipate learners struggling and reduce the level of challenge. Sullivan et al (2009) provide us with a solution to this. In the planning stage, we think of ‘enabling prompts’ – prompts that support the learner in attempting the task, without overscaffolding in the moment. A benefit is that the learner continues to attempt the task independently without over-relying on the teacher’s guidance. 
  4. Additionally, they suggest we think of ‘extending prompts’ – these are prompts that can extend the thinking of the learner when they have completed the task, rather than us creating a task in the moment that may not meet our instructional intentions.  The extending prompt is designed to extend the thinking of the learner on the same context as the original task, not create an entirely separate context altogether. 
  5. The final way we can consider challenge is taken from the NCETM. They talk of the FICT model:

    F – Familiarity
    I – Independence
    C – Complexity
    T – Technical Demand 

I’ve adapted this model into scales to demonstrate how each can affect the level of challenge. These are presented in pictures below: 




Technical Demand:

Nothing of what I have said in this blog is subject-specific, although all of the ideas presented above come from the mathematics community. I think they all have use outside of the maths classroom. If you have any thoughts on challenge, I’d love to hear them.


Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

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