Challenge as Engagement

There are many components at work when teachers design instruction that engages students in learning. According to Shumow and Schmidt (2014) one of the most important aspects to engage students is the idea of challenge. Shumow and Schmidt define challenge as

“anything that requires an investment of effort, whether it is cognitive, physical, or emotional” (p. 112).

Challenging students as part of the learning process is a significant way to engage students in the content being taught. Shumow and Schmidt claim that appropriately challenging students both engages students and provides a message that the teacher has confidence in their abilities. Students can then find motivation to activate their critical thinking skills in order to solve problems and persevere through challenging activities and tasks.

How much should teachers challenge their students?

man jumping from one rock formation to another in the desertChallenging students in order to engage them in the learning process sounds like a practical solution to increasing engagement in the classroom, but this raises a few important questions. The first question is how much should teachers challenge their students? Shumow and Schmidt (2014) reference motivation theory when addressing that question. They suggest that moderate challenges are the most engaging. Moderate challenges both prevent boredom and avoid anxiety. But not all students react the same way to being challenged. Shumow and Schmidt reference Dweck (1999) to address a student’s mindset and how the student’s mindset also plays a role in how a student views their ability to overcome a challenge and see their work through to completion. This is where a teacher’s motivation strategies come into play along with different methods for establishing appropriate challenge for individual students. Shumow and Schmidt suggest that teachers hold high expectations for students regardless of the student’s performance. Teachers should also offer clear and concise instructions for students and ask students how they feel about the amount of challenge associated with an assignment. Teachers also need to be observant in the classroom so that they can identify quickly any student who may be over or under-challenged.

What does challenge look like in practice?

What might this look like in an actual classroom? And how might an instructor employ some of those strategies? I tried some of Shumow and Schmidt’s strategies with my own students in order to find out.

I teach education courses at a university, and to challenge my preservice teachers I used to provide them with a complex scenario that I encountered at some point during my tenure as a high school English teacher. The education students would move into groups and work their way through the scenario to come up with the best solution. The students reacted well to this activity, but I was always left feeling like I could still do more to challenge them in different ways to help prepare them for the rigors of teaching high school students. So, by employing some of Shumow and Schmidt’s (2014) strategies, I started asking the students what they were struggling with during their student teacher placements, and then I developed some activities that directly addressed their identified struggles. I also made more of an effort to listen to their group discussions so that I could offer advice and pose challenging questions to make them use more problem-solving skills. These strategies seemed to help and engaged the preservice teachers more, but it still seemed like some were just going through the motions. I then realized that students were struggling to visualize what the scenarios might look like in a real classroom, so I asked students to record their classrooms and analyze their instruction. They then brought those analyses to class to discuss with classmates. Every student was engaged in the activity because they were not only challenged but could also apply their learning to something that was useful and meaningful to them—their own teaching.

Establishing that challenge is an important aspect of instruction that can effectively engage students begs the questions: How does an instructor create moderately challenging lessons and activities? What are some methods for connecting lessons and activities to students’ lives outside the classroom? I think that answering these questions about your own students can lead to more engaging classroom experiences for more students and help students see the benefits of course content in their own lives.


Shumow, L., & Schmidt, J. (2014). Enhancing adolescents’ motivation for science: Research-based strategies for teaching male and female students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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