Theme 2: Use Good Problems

6 6: Pleasantly Frustrating — Challenge them

To explain the PLEASANTLY FRUSTRATING principle, Gee writes, “Learning works best when new challenges are pleasantly frustrating in the sense of being felt by learners to be at the outer edge of, but within, their “regime of competence”. That is, these challenges feel hard, but doable. Furthermore, learners feel—and get evidence—that their effort is paying off in the sense that they can see, even when they fail, how and if they are making progress.”

This principle, along with the previous principle of Well-Ordered Problems, are related to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi idea of flow, when we’re neither too frustrated nor too bored to continue, but pleasantly challenged such that we want to continue.

PLEASANTLY FRUSTRATING strategies in teaching

  • Openly explore the wicked problems in your field or discipline. Challenge students to think about how course content can help address them.
  • Allow and encourage students to latch onto a particular aspect of course content, and develop expertise in it as a foundation for approaching other, more challenging aspects of the course.
  • Provide opportunities for groups of students to develop challenges for each other (some of these may turn into course content you can use later!). This will increase the challenge for advanced students by looking at a topic from the perspective of explaining it to others. It also develops social capital for students.
  • Provide, and credit, related “advanced tangents” for topics, so students who understand the basics of a topic can delve into more challenging aspects of it instead of becoming bored.
  • Add a few strategies that might work in your course, and see others’ ideas here.


  • Provide a “challenge of the day” (or week) link to a wicked problem currently being explored by colleagues in your field.
  • Provide feedback (personal and general) following assessments using rubrics that have a difficult-to-reach upper limit.
  • Do not underestimate your students; design quizzes that get progressively more difficult.
  • Students tend to challenge each other at a level that reasonably reflects the upper limits of their understanding. Challenge them to develop quiz questions for each other and use the Peer Grading/feedback tool.
  • Develop low-stakes/high-difficulty practice tests.
  • Add a few strategies that might work in your course, and see others’ ideas here.


Knowledge Check


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