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Teaching challenge

While pupils in Ms Sterling’s class are generally keen to give tasks a go, they often take the safe option and seek support from their teacher or peers whenever possible. How can Ms Sterling help pupils to adopt behaviours that make them more open to challenge?

Key idea

Pupils who experience success are more likely to be motivated, resilient and open to challenge.

Evidence summary

The role of success

Part of Ms Sterling’s job is to maximise pupil learning – this means providing the right level of challenge. However, as well as offering challenge, it is also important that tasks enable pupils to experience a high success rate. This balance is a tricky one to strike.

Evidence suggests that if pupils struggle but are ultimately successful with a task, it is more likely they will remember the material (EEF, 2017). Where pupils have experienced success, they are likely to put in more effort, be more motivated and show more confidence in the future (Coe et al., 2014). This is because where pupils believe in their abilities to complete a specific task, they are more persistent at that task. Their investment is driven by their perceptions of success and failure, particularly if they have limited experience of meaningful success in the past (Gutman & Schoon, 2013).

Establishing high expectations of success

Research suggests that teachers should aim for pupils to be successful around 80% of the time (Rosenshine, 2012). Ms Sterling can build pupil expectations that they will succeed in a task by:

  • Offering rewards and praise: Providing extrinsic motivation when pupils attempt challenging work. Using positive reinforcement more than negative works best (IES, 2008).
  • Attribution: Linking effort and success for pupils when introducing or framing tasks (Coe et al., 2014).
  • Avoiding lavish praise: If used without merit, praise can lower pupil confidence in their own ability (Coe et al., 2014).
  • Championing challenge: Sharing how task effort will lead to future learning success. For example, directing pupils’ attention to others who have succeeded due to their effort, or saying: “this work is designed to be tough, don’t worry if you struggle, this will help you learn.”

These strategies rely on a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It is worth noting that while teachers can harness extrinsic motivation to help get pupils started, intrinsic motivation is likely to get pupils to stick at tasks, particularly when things get tricky (Lazowski & Hulleman, 2016).

Effective teaching raises success rates

Ms Sterling can increase the chance pupils succeed at challenging tasks by using her emerging expertise in:

  • How pupils learn (Deans for Impact, 2015), for example taking care not to overload their working memories.
  • Her phase or subject specialism (Rosenshine, 2012; Coe et al., 2014), for example ensuring pupils have had enough input before they attempt challenging tasks, especially with specific barriers they might experience if the topic is particularly tricky, or they have special educational needs.

Her classroom climate is also crucial: when Ms Sterling sets challenging work, there will be times when pupils fail. Building a classroom where pupils trust that failure is okay is therefore important to help pupils deal with failure as a natural part of learning.

Nuances and caveats

The relationship between teacher expectations and pupil outcomes is indirect. Teachers can best convey high expectations by getting the balance of challenge and support right. This will ensure pupils experience success, which should increase their motivation and sense of self-worth, also supporting their resilience (Coe et al., 2014).

When engineering a high success rate for pupils, Ms Sterling must be careful not to remove challenge altogether. Setting pupils up for success in unchallenging tasks does not build motivation and can embed low expectations if pupils interpret this as low teacher expectations (Coe et al., 2014). Instead, Ms Sterling should ensure she provides enough scaffolding for pupils to be successful and withdraw the scaffolding as pupils get better at a task (Rosenshine, 2012). She can also explain why she is withdrawing scaffolding.

Pupil success at a task is an indication that they have successfully learnt lesson content, but not a sure sign – ‘learning’ and ‘performance’ are different.

Key takeaways

Ms Sterling can support pupils to be more open to challenge if she understands:

  • pupil motivation is driven by intrinsic and extrinsic factors, prior experiences and perceptions of success
  • teachers who give pupils experiences of success build not only motivation but also resilience and belief in their ability to succeed
  • teachers with knowledge of how pupils learn can better balance challenge and support and promote pupil success, which makes them open to challenge

Further reading

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014).

What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research.

Durham University.

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.   <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener"

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). 

Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). 

The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008).

Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. 

Review of Educational Research ,  86 (2), 602–640.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. 

American Educator

, 12–20.