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Choosing tasks at an appropriate level of difficulty

As experienced teachers know and as research has confirmed, students are most likely to engage with learning when tasks are of moderate difficulty, neither too easy nor too hard and therefore neither boring nor frustrating (Britt, 2005). Finding the right level of difficulty, however, can be a challenge if you have little experience teaching a particular grade level or curriculum, or even if students are simply new to you and their abilities unknown. Whether familiar or not, members of any class are likely to have diverse skills and readiness–a fact that makes it challenging to determine what level of difficulty is appropriate. A common strategy for dealing with these challenges is to begin units, lessons, or projects with tasks that are relatively easy and familiar. Then, introduce more difficult material or tasks gradually until students seem challenged, but not overwhelmed. Following this strategy gives the teacher a chance to observe and diagnose students’ learning needs before adjusting content, and it gives students a chance to orient themselves to the teacher’s expectations, teaching style, and topic of study without becoming frustrated prematurely. Later in a unit, lesson, or project, students seem better able to deal with more difficult tasks or content (Van Merrionboer, 2003). The principle seems to help as well with “authentic” learning tasks—ones that resemble real-world activities, such as learning to drive an automobile or to cook a meal, and that present a variety of complex tasks simultaneously. Even in those cases it helps to isolate and focus on the simplest subtasks first (such as “put the key in the ignition”) and move to harder tasks only later (such as parallel parking).

Sequencing instruction is only a partial solution to finding the best “level” of difficulty, however, because it does not deal with enduring individual differences among students. The fundamental challenge to teachers is to individualize or differentiate instruction fully: to tailor it not only to the class as a group, but to the lasting differences among members of the class. One way to approach this sort of diversity, obviously, is to plan different content or activities for different students or groups of students. While one group works on Task A, another group works on Task B; one group works on relatively easy math problems, for example, while another works on harder ones. Differentiating instruction in this way complicates a teacher’s job, but it can be done, and has in fact been done by many teachers (it also makes teaching more interesting!). In the next chapter, we describe some classroom management strategies that help with such multi-tasking.

Providing moderate amounts of structure and detail

Chances are that at some point in your educational career you have wished that a teacher would clarify or explain an assignment more fully, and perhaps give it a clearer structure or organization. Students’ desire for clarity is especially common with assignments that are by nature open-ended, such as long essays, large projects, or creative works. Simply being told to “write an essay critiquing the novel”, for example, leaves more room for uncertainty (and worry) than being given guidelines about what questions the essay should address, what topics or parts it should have, and what its length or style should be (Chesebro, 2003). As you might suspect, some students desire clarity more than others, and improve their performance especially much when provided with plenty of structure and clarity. Students with certain kinds of learning difficulties, in particular, often learn effectively and stay on task only if provided with somewhat explicit, detailed instructions about the tasks expected of them (Marks, et al., 2003).

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Source:  OpenStax, Educational psychology. OpenStax CNX. May 11, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11302/1.2
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