Tuning The Challenge/Support Matrix

Photo 30-10-2017, 18 37 38There is a shift occurring where we as an academic community are moving from simple measures of student satisfaction in a course to measuring engagement in the learning process. Pitching teaching to make it engaging can be tricky and involves a mix of both academic challenge and appropriate support. Set the challenge too high and the students become frustrated, too low and it’s not stimulating. The support surrounding teaching also needs to be just right: not enough and the students may disengage, too much and you run the risk of doing the work for them, inhibiting real learning.

What I am describing here is a version of Sanford’s challenge/support theory which is centred around the idea that for growth and development to occur, a student needs to have the correct balance of challenge and support for their level of readiness (Sanford 1962). This idea is often expressed as a grid with challenges and support increasing on each of the axes and a list of descriptors or emotions in each quadrant. This matrix has also appeared as the Daloz’s mentoring model and as a means of measuring job satisfaction alongside hygiene factors (Herzberg model). The theory states that when the level of challenge is balanced by appropriate support, (academic) growth can occur. This is the sweet spot we are aiming for in our teaching.

[Note of caution, as set out in this blog  “Sanford only works, and should only be applied, in conjunction with other theories (be they cognitive development, psycho-social development or identify development). It was never intended as a stand-alone theory to use in describing your advising style.” ]

challange support

Challenge / Support Matrix

Low Challenge / Low Support – Little progress in the learning.
High Challenge / Low Support – Students find it difficult to cope.
Low Challenge / High Support – No need for the student to put any energy into the task.
High Challenge / High Support – Growth is promoted and real learning occurs.

In addition to challenge and support, a third concept of readiness can be added. This determines if a student is physically and psychologically ready to grow and tackle a new challenge. Like a parent teaching their child to ride a bike, the level of challenge and support changes at each stage. At the start, the child is ready when they can walk and the first challenge is balance. Apprehension of falling is taken away by being ready to catch them as they wobble along on pedal-less balance bike. Once balance is sorted, they are ready for the next challenge of learning the skill of pedalling, supported by instruction and reassurance that it’s okay to scoot and put your feet down. Once we are going, the challenge is the first ride to the cafe, supported by encouragement “you’re doing well” and instruction to look where you’re going so you don’t fall in the canal. Finally having learned the basics, the challenge changes to “let’s see how fast you can go“; I might support you by suggesting the best gear to be in and your position on the bike, but you have to do the work.

It is prior learning that sets the perceived difficulty of a new challenge being undertaken. My first years would find a final year critical evaluation of research papers too challenging, even with the same level of support in handling conflicting information. However, a knowledge based review of a topic within the literature is appropriate, with support given in essay writing. Hence the level of challenge and the support given should be appropriate for the current state of readiness. Screen casts and demonstrations help initially prepare the students to perform a skill or task by presenting relevant knowledge. Later, support in acquiring knowledge from external sources and self study skills, allow the students to synthesise their own understanding. Support could also mean a clear outline of expectations, knowing what is expected to complete a task.

I am finding this task challenging,
but that’s okay as I know I am going in the correct direction”.

To gauge the level of challenge and support, I used a mid-module review as a pause point to give me the opportunity to tune the level of challenge and support, with time to intervene before the next stage of study. To achieve this, students were asked two simple questions and given the opportunity to offer free-form feedback:

  • On a scale of one to ten how challenging is the module?
  • On a scale of one to ten how supported are you on the module?

The answers are then plotted on an x,y graph as a proxy for the challenge/support matrix, allowing me to gauge the students’ perception of challenge and support. The free-form comments can be used to give a narrative and context, highlighting where support or challenge could be altered.

Photo 30-10-2017, 18 47 30

Tuning in on the Matrix

Popular vs Effective. Reflecting on one of my own modules, I worry that I offer too much support in coursework tasks, ultimately leading to good attainment in that specific task and high student satisfaction but limited growth. By over-supporting I risk a surface learning approach by the students. Completion of the coursework is effectively going through the motions, leading to a low level of readiness for the next assessment stage. This then manifests as poor performance in the exams, where there is a lack of readiness and the challenge is high, but the support is low.

Reflection then has identified an issue in my practice that needs to be addressed, but which direction should I go from here? I am reluctant to decrease the challenge of the exam as this would not prepare the students for the next level of study and inhibit their readiness for later tasks. One option would be to develop a closer link between the content of coursework and the exam so that the learning from one is direct preparation for the other. This approach should increase readiness for the next assessment challenge while maintaining current support levels in the coursework. I can keep the challenge of the exam unchanged, but increase the support through formative preparations, such as in-class tests to get the students to a state of readiness to address the challenge of the exam. I will find out in the summer if that works by comparison with past attainment and have the opportunity to revisit on completion what the students thought about the level of support and challenge.


Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York: Wiley.
Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York: Atherton.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s