De-weaponising Academic Challenge. Let’s lionise Vulnerability, and Leave ‘grit’ to the Self-help Gurus.

Ros O’Leary & David Webster

In another post, we will reflect on the pedagogical responses that Higher Education practitioners might make to an atmosphere where ‘challenge’ is suddenly (partly due to a shift in the National Student Survey questions) a hot topic. There is a discourse, which we are seeing more of, related to the established challenge/support relationship in learning contexts (much which draws from Sanford’s Challenge and Support theory). Institutions want to support and challenge students in a blend where, according to the theory, growth is optimal.

Picture: From a LinkedIn Leadership post at


This is not a critique of the challenge and support approach (though we note that a little like resilience, mindfulness and grit, it is a notion that attracts far too much consensus about it being a good thing, for our liking), but more a short reflection on the nature of academic challenge. When we see the notion of ‘make University education more challenging’ bandied around, along with ideas of alleged grade inflation, and discourses that seem to suggest that current young people are too soft/not ‘tough enough’, we want to raise our concerns with ‘challenge’.

In an era where we are starting to realise the malign impacts of toxic masculinity, and where an extreme “alt-right” in the USA and elsewhere want to characterise any progressive politics as being the domain of ‘snowflakes’, we need to be exceptionally discerning about advancing notions around what academic challenge might look like.

In managing academic challenge in Higher Education contexts, we would urge educators to refrain from characterising it as merely ‘making my course harder’ and ‘failing more students.’* The notion we want to advance, albeit briefly in this short post, is one of collective challenge, whereby tutor and students undergo the struggle together as part of the learning process.

When we model being challenged, when we share areas where we find understanding or Picture2practice difficult, we can show how we manage our uncertainty and non-omniscience. We expose the academic discipline, and its occupants, as imperfect humans doing their contested, shifting, best to make sense of the phenomena studied. We don’t seek to eclipse the difficulties of working in our field behind strategies for appearing to ‘know it all’, but instead lionise our own vulnerability. In more detailed work, we will be trying to spell out, in some detail, how this manifests in very practical teaching terms, but wanted to spell out here a challenge, as it were, to the idea that academic challenge needs to be about having/cultivating tougher, ‘grittier’ students. We want to ask colleagues to pause, and imagine what challenge could be in a classroom where there is a real sense of openness and shared endeavour in working on the problems of the subject.

Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York: Wiley.


*Beckett’s notion of ‘fail more, fail better’ is much fêted in contemporary education, and beyond, and we do not oppose it, but also note that students accustomed to succeeding, and averse to failure, may need ‘chances to fail’ to be well structured, and the learning around them to be thoughtfully conceived.

Ros O’Leary is the University of Gloucestershire’s (UoG) Head of Educational Development. On twitter she can be found at @ros_oleary

Dave Webster, UoG’s Head of Learning & Teaching Innovation, tweets as @davidwebster




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