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Teaching Strategies: The Balance Between Challenge and Frustration

Jordan Catapano

Imagine a very thin line stretching across your classroom. On one side of the line is the land of “too easy,” where students have to exert very little effort and hardly grow. On the other side of the line is “too tough,” where no matter how hard your students work, they’re unlikely to find much success.

Your goal: To facilitate learning right along this line using teaching strategies.

When you’re teaching along this line, you’re striking an important balance. That balance is that you’re providing a learning experience that is challenging without becoming frustrating. Challenge is important for students because it forces them to grow. When something is not challenging, it’s easy – and an “easy” learning environment is hardly one that encourages appropriate development – it may rather lead to boredom. When a particular course is easy, it may mean that the standards are too low.

But perhaps more importantly, the teacher who strikes this balance is not creating an environment of frustration. Frustration arises when tasks are simply too challenging, beyond reasonable expectation for a student to complete. And we all know what it’s like to feel frustrated and helpless. That feeling makes us feel like we can never succeed and we want to give up.

So how does a teacher successfully strike this balance between using teaching strategies to create a challenging, enriching environment without going too far and frustrating their students?

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Teaching Strategies: Setting An Appropriate Standard

When game developers design their games, they know that people play their games specifically to be challenged. The challenge attracts the gamers, and if a game is too easy then gamers become bored. Tracy Fullerton, author of “Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Designing Innovative Games,” explains, “If the level of challenge remains appropriate to the level of ability, and if this challenge rises as the ability level rises, the person will stay in the center region and experience … “flow.” In flow, an activity balances a person between challenge and ability, frustration and boredome, to produce an experience of achievement and happiness.”

Our objective, then, is not to create a “high” standard, but rather an “appropriate” standard. We do so when we push students towards an appropriately high-yet-achievable objective. Like in gaming, it may be an objective that they fail at multiple times; yet if they persist, they will be rewarded with success.

Setting an appropriate standard of achievement for your students depends on a variety of factors you may need to ask yourself about:

  • What have their previous years’ expectations and achievements been?
  • What will future years’ expectations and achievements be?
  • What is essential for students to master by the time they complete the course?
  • What is possible for students to master by the time they complete the course?
  • Will standards be the same for all students?
  • How much do I genuinely believe in each student’s ability to achieve?
  • How can standards be adjusted as I learn more about student capabilities?

When you determine the standard for your classroom, you must determine what areas you’re willing to adjust, what areas you will not compromise your standard on, and how you will support students in their process of working up to the standard that you set.

Doug Lemov, in “Teach Like a Champion,” offers five great tips for setting and activating high standards in any classroom. And Kim Campbell, author of “Students of Academic Rise (SOAR): A Handbook for Addressing the Achievement Gap,” includes that student achievement of high expectations only happens when “the teacher must believe and show that belief that all students can learn, grow, and excel.”

Also, consider asking students what they demand of themselves. When we are the arbitrary external standard settings, students work to please us, and doing so has limited effect. However, if students play a part in setting their own high expectations for themselves, then they also play a more internally motivated role in fulfilling them.

When to Detect Frustration or Apathy

Frustration occurs when a task is repeatedly too difficult, even after multiple authentic attempts have been made. Once students reach a level of frustration, they are unlikely to desire to re-engage in a given task, even if the task is altered to be more achievable. In this case, appropriate scaffolding was overlooked, and students were deprived of the opportunity to “Climb the next rung on the ladder;” rather, the course demanded that they operate at a level not yet achievable.

There are several ways to detect when a task might be too difficult or easy for students to achieve and may lead to making them feel frustrated:

  • Students overtly state, “This is too difficult” or “I just don’t get it.”
  • Students overtly state, “This is easy” or “Can I be done now?”
  • Students have difficult starting.
  • Students have difficulty understanding instructions.
  • Students have difficulty creating questions about what they don’t understand.
  • Students respond with generalized, empty statements that fail to address details.
  • Students are easily distracted or fail to engage in material.
  • Students ignore the classroom activities or assigned out-of-class work.

What’s interesting is that often the symptoms of boredom and frustration are indistinguishable. Or what’s more, sometimes easy tasks lead to frustration, or tasks that are too challenging lead to boredom.

But discovering that certain tasks are too easy or difficult for students isn’t too tough for teachers. The real challenge is this: “What are you going to do when you’re not striking the right balance for any given student?”

Supporting and Encouraging Students to Keep Going

One of the keys to helping students succeed in a challenging academic environment is making sure that they are properly supported. It’s one thing to just throw challenging tasks at students; it’s quite another to help ensure their success.

Here are a few tips for helping ensure that despite your standards, students are assisted toward achieving them:

Let them know their supports. Sometimes we have support systems built into our school – such as tutoring centers, peer mentors, or office hours – that could help provide more individualized attention to students. Do you students and parents know about these supports? What are their incentives for taking advantage of them?

Get more adults involved. Teachers are the first responders for student achievement, but they aren’t the only ones with skin in the game. Recruit additional support from parents, counselors, administrators, and fellow teachers who may also interact with your student. When a team of adult professionals rallies around a student, that student benefits from many streams of support.

Believe in students. Students’ likelihood of success often begins with their instructor’s personal belief in their ability to do so. Do you genuinely believe that your students can succeed? Researcher and author Carol Dweck, along with others, recognizes that teachers who believe in their students get more positive responses and higher engagement from them.

Let students know you believe in them. Naturally, we can believe in students all we want to. But take it one step further and let your students know you believe in them. Provide personalized sticky notes, make phone calls home, and pull students aside at the beginning or end of class to let them know that you’re in their corner.

Make adjustments for individuals. Some students are ready for Step 10 while others might struggle with Step 2. That’s OK. What’s not OK is that we expect everyone to be working on Step 7 simultaneously. See if you can make adjustments with how you work with your students to ensure that their personalized level of learning is being targeted. That narrow line between boredom and frustration in your classroom really exists at an individual level.

Failure is an option. We learn by failing, learning from failure, and trying again. This is how we play videogames, how we find Mr. Right, and how we how we learn to cook. How will you facilitate failure as part of your learning process? Will students know that trying and failing is better than giving up?

Failure is not an option. At the same time, “big failure” is not allowed. Failure as in students not passing your class, students giving up, or students not working up to their potential is prohibited. It’s important that teachers draw the line and refuse to let students fail in a way that ultimately hurts them.

Challenge, rigor, and high standards are good. But if we push these too far to a point students aren’t ready for, we risk frustrating them and giving their learning process a setback. One of the challenges of our profession is to find that happy medium where we can push students further than they thought they could go on their own without frustrating them to the point where they become disinterested. Accomplishing this requires constant checks and recalibrations to ensure that we are creating an environment where students can truly thrive.

How do you strike this balance between challenge and frustration? What do you do to ensure students are challenged, and what adjustments or supports have you included in your process? Tell us your story in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.