You might think that students resist challenging coursework. But is that truly the case? We wanted to know, so we set out to learn their opinions about the level of challenge they’re experiencing in their college courses… and whether or not they believe those challenges are welcome and effective part of their learning process.

In our recent Student Engagement Insights survey, we asked students: How challenging do you find the majority of your courses? Their responses are below:

How challenging do students find their courses?

More than half (55%) of the responding students found their courses moderately challenging, and 36% told us that they found their courses very challenging. In many respects, this is positive; most did not feel overly challenged, which can be discouraging, and fewer felt only slightly challenged (or not challenged at all), which can be disengaging.

In our survey, we also asked students to respond to the statement: “Challenges increase my interest in class topics.” You may be surprised, but pleased, to learn that more than 85% of the 4,054 students who responded to that question said yes! Does that encourage you to challenge and inspire your students to deeper levels of learning… and greater levels of success? We hope so!

Ways you could consider challenging your students:

1. Fuel their motivation. Let your students know you’re supportive of their goals, while also encouraging them to recognize that their own attitudes play a strong role in their ability to succeed. With this type of encouragement, they’ll know that you’re behind them… but also know that they must challenge themselves to “own” and achieve their own success. For ideas, review our post “Ten Tips for Motivating Students.”

2. Let them know how to set more challenging goals for themselves. In a recent webinar, Dr. Christine Harrington described the “ABCS of Goal Setting.” She noted an interesting finding: if people set challenging goals, they’re more likely to see better results. Review the webinar, and consider how you might help your students set challenging (but encouraging) academic goals for themselves.

3. Create activities and assignments that promote active learning and critical thinking. Many instructors, such as management author Ricky Griffin, have noted that opportunities for active learning can promote student engagement, as well as deeper learning of your course concepts. And of course, as Dr. Christine Harrington notes, challenging learning tasks designed can foster students’ critical-thinking skills and push them (in a positive way!) towards higher levels of learning.


What creative strategies have you employed to create challenging coursework that stimulates students’ learning in a positive way? Share your ideas in the comments.