Optimal Level of Challenge

In the model of student engagement promoted by Elizabeth Barkley, the synergy that promotes optimal engagement is created by twin helixes of motivation and active learning.[i] She further describes three classroom conditions that link the two: a sense of classroom community, optimal levels of challenge and holistic learning. I was particularly intrigued by this second condition in which teachers create synergy by presenting tasks that are sufficiently challenging but not so difficult as to discourage. Barkley identifies this sweet spot noting, “Somewhere between ‘been there done that’ and ‘dazed and confused’ lies the optimal level of challenge that engages students.”[ii] Similarly Lev Vygotsky, coined the term, “zone of proximal development” to describe an optimal learning environment where students are exposed to ideas and concepts slightly above their own developmental level. He argued learning was productive when there was a gap in “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” [iii] According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is one of several mental states optimal for learning that occurs when a learner is appropriately challenged and deeply engaged.[iv] In yoga we often refer to this optimal level of challenge as “finding your edge”.

My first thought when reading this was, “Yikes, how do I do this with forty (or sometimes eighty) students all with different experiences and levels of development?” My next concern was how detrimental not providing appropriate levels of challenge can be to student engagement. Jere Brophy suggests that when tasks are too challenging students become anxious, but when activities are not challenging enough, they become bored.[v] Along with apathy, anxiety and boredom are key indicators of a lack of engagement.[vi] Even if you have the majority of students working at an optimal level of challenge, my fear is that the symptoms of disengaged learning that may develop in the minority that are not, can spread through the ranks.

Fortunately, Barkley is aware of this challenge and provides three different strategies for empowering students to take ownership of their learning and work within their own specific “zones of proximal development”. First she stresses the importance of providing robust, thoughtful, and authentic assessment, that aims to be realistic, using real-world situations. Second she calls for a teaching of metacognitive skills that ultimately help students learn how to learn. Finally she advocates for empowering students as partners in the learning process.

I identified with Maryellen Weimer’s characterization of today’s college students as “generally anxious and tentative…Most like, want, indeed need teachers who tell them exactly what to do. Education is something done unto them. It frequently involves stress, anxiety, and other forms of discomfort.”[vii] Many of the classes I have taught recently are made up of studio artists that required to take the class to complete their degree and are nervous to be in a more academic setting. Despite their creativity they are cautious and reticent to take control of their own learning. However, as Barkely notes, “Empowering students to be active partners in their learning requires a subtle but thorough shift in focus away from what the teacher is teaching to what and how the student is learning.”[viii]

I think I naturally teach metacognitive skills and empower students as partners in the learning process, but where I really struggle is in creating authentic assessments that meet an appropriate level of challenge for a diverse group of students. For me it will be important to remember Barkley’s proposition: “Instead of reciting, restating, or replicating through demonstration what he or she was taught or what is already known, the student has to carry out the kind of exploration and work that constitutes “doing” in the discipline.”[ix]

In my case this means replacing the dreaded slide test with what art historians really do: they write exhibition reviews, they curate art shows, they interview artists. Along with assigning students such activities I also would like to explore asking more “essential questions”. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins define essential questions as open-ended, thought provoking and intellectually engaging. Such questions call for higher order thinking, point to important, transferable ideas, raise additional questions, require support and justification, and recur over time.[x] By design these questions draw out unique answers from students and encourage them to work at their own optimal level of challenge.

[i] Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010): 24.
[ii] Barkley, 27.
[iii] Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978): 86.
[iv] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Intrinsic Motivation and Effective Teaching: A Flow Analysis,” Teaching Well and Liking It: Motivating Faculty to Teach Effectively ed. J. Bess (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997): 72-89.
[v] Jere Brophy, Motivating Students to Learn (New York: Routledge, 2010).
[vi] Barkley, 28.
[vii] Maryellen Weimer, Learner-centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002): 23.
[viii] Barkley, 32.
[ix] Barkley, 29.
[x] Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (Alexandria: ASCD, 2013): 3.


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