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Tool: Choosing challenging learning activities

The challenge of an activity is determined not simply by what students are asked to do, but by how they are asked to do it. For example, the mental challenge of a handout that requires problem solving or invention may be reduced by asking children to follow along with a sample copy on the overhead instead of doing it on their own.

Activities at each level of mental challenge have a place in the classroom, but it is important to consider whether the activity you have chosen matches your goal for the lesson. Consider the state standards for the concept you want to teach. For objectives that ask students to “list” or “identify,” activities with low levels of mental challenge may be appropriate, while objectives that ask students to “understand,” “explain” or “predict” may require higher levels of challenge.

When you review curriculum with another teacher, you may want to consider the mental demand of the activities presented. Some questions to consider include:

  • Would you classify this activity as having low, middle or high mental challenge?
  • Does the challenge level match your own goals for the student learning as well as those of the state or district standards?
  • How might the way you choose to teach the activity alter the level of demand?
  • Could the activity be altered to provide different levels of challenge to different students in the room? What might the advantages of that be? The disadvantages?

When planning a unit, try looking across the activities chosen and tally the number of activities that fall into each category. Examine whether you’ve included activities from each of the three levels:

Examining the mental challenge of learning activities

Low mental challenges...

Medium mental challenges...

High mental challenges...

Ask students to reproduce facts, routines or procedures exactly as they were learned.

Focus on correct answers.

Have what to do and how to do it clearly stated in the directions.

Have no connection to Big Ideas.

May require students to draw on facts, routines or procedures learned previously.

May suggest pathways to follow without explicit directions.

Require few explanations from students about their final product.

Have limited opportunities for decision making by students.

Have no clear set of steps to follow.

Require students to explore Big Ideas or underlying concepts while interpreting the task set by the teacher.

Expect and encourage multiple interpretations of the activity.

Focus on understanding rather than correct responses.

Examples of tasks:


Total number for unit: ___

Examples of tasks:


Total number for unit: ___

Examples of tasks:


Total number for unit: ___

Adapted from Stein, M.K., Smith, M.S., Henningsen, M.A. & Silver, E.A. (2000). Implementing Standards-based mathematics instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.

See Expanding mental challenges in elementary social studies. Also, Building varied mental challenges into reading assignments.

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