Step 3: Challenge

A quick recap

We’ve gone through the research to bring you our evidence-based Six Steps for Outstanding Learning. So far we’ve looked at Step 1, which is about activating our students’ prior knowledge.

We’ve also had a look at Step 2, which is the presentation of the new learning. We’ve talked about how this needs to be multi-sensory, looking at the big picture and the finer detail, and taught with an approach that takes into account the way the brain learns best.

A table showing our Six Steps for Outstanding Learning, which are: Step 0 Orientate, Step 1 Prior Knowledge, Step 2 Presenting, Step 3 Challenge, Step 4 Feedback, Step 5 Repetition

So now we’re at Step 3: Challenge.

Step 3 is setting a challenging task for our students. The aim of the task is to exercise the pathways which connect the new material and the existing prior knowledge, so that the new learning goes into the long term memory.

Our judgement of our students’ prior knowledge is key in helping us to set an appropriate challenging task. We need to get a balance between too challenging and not challenging enough.

If the task is too easy, it only exercises prior knowledge, not the new material. If the task is too hard, the student will fail or will give up. Either way, no learning can take place.

An image showing stones balancing on a scale

There’s a number of ways we can improve the effectiveness of the challenging task: we can use collaborative methods, graphical methods, worked examples, hypothesis testing, and metacognition. We’ll have a look at all of this in this section

Why is the challenging task important?

It might seem difficult to find the time for this process when there is so much to get through. However, the evidence suggests it’s much more effective to spend time patching up prior knowledge and setting a challenging task than it is to just plough on with the curriculum.

An image showing the back of a two students' heads and a teacher at a blackboard

One piece of research followed up teachers who consistently got better results than other people, year after year. The researchers found that one of the characteristics of these successful teachers is that they don’t rigidly follow lesson plans. They constantly assess their students’ learning, and adapt the lesson as they go along.


When Julie arrived at her new college, she realised that the tutors weren’t using the schemes of work. She threw them out and then asked the tutors how they were teaching the topic and wrote new schemes from that. This made sure all the best materials were available to all tutors, especially new staff.

Tutors are now asked to write notes on the back of the sheet giving the date and a signature on what went well, and what went badly. These notes are then used to update the scheme of work. This process is a proven technique – but Julie had no knowledge of the research before coming on the training session.

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What's next?

Collaborative methods