In any tutorial class some students seem to get frustrated with little tougher questions. While tackling them is important to learn the subject. How to motivate the students to attempt tougher questions without getting discouraged ?

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    You're asking the impossible. Better to ask how to motivate students to work on hard problems even though they get discouraged. Everyone gets discouraged; working through that discouragement makes success all the more rewarding. – JeffE Apr 11 '13 at 14:53
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    An interesting method: Don't let them know that its tough. Some awesome algorithms were published this way. – Naresh Apr 11 '13 at 15:14
  • you could make it so that if they answer a certain amount of tough questions then they don't have to do any of the easier questions at all (but still get credit for them) – nathan hayfield Apr 11 '13 at 22:32

This is a tough question and one that teachers have struggled with throughout the history of pedagogy. Sometimes, students need to find within themselves the curiosity and drive to plow forward despite the frustration. So, don't be discouraged when you see frustrated students, as every teacher has to deal with this. Philosophy aside, here are some tips I've found helpful over the years:

  1. Scaffolding is immensely important. Build up to the harder problems, and give students the time they need to process how typical problems are solved. E.g., If you're studying friction, have the students do plenty of problems that involve friction on a flat surface, then move to friction on a ramp, then work on friction on a vertical wall (by a sideways force), then move to centripetal friction that keeps a turning car from sliding off a road, then move to cars on banked hills.

  2. Don't try to cover too much material in one sitting. Students can only process so much at once, and many really do need time to process.

  3. Positive feedback goes a long way. When a student makes progression on a problem, acknowledge it.

  4. Be available for help, but not always available. Some students like the easy way out, which is to ask you how to do the problem! Don't be afraid to turn a student away until they've given it a decent try. That said, judicious pointers in the right direction can help.

  5. Encourage them to work in groups. This does run into the "easy way out" for some students, but more often it can lead to good ideas being generated, and students can learn from the collaboration.

  6. Give them lots and lots of examples. The more they see problem-solving techniques, the better they will become.

Unfortunately, given the time constraints of college teaching, it isn't always possible to use all of these strategies--I found that it was easier to find the time when I taught high school. That said, students in college should be willing to work harder on their own, anyway (but we all know that isn't always the case!).

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    +1 for Scaffolding is immensely important - the more they can see that they have been building up to this point, the more confidence they will have when approaching a tougher problem. – earthling Apr 11 '13 at 12:28

Hints and extra credits.

You mention some students seem to get frustrated with little tougher questions. They are students. They don't have enough knowledge/skill/experience to crack tough problems. Hints will get them the starting/entry points.

If a student spend hours or days to solve tough problems and get nothing afterwards, he would lose interests quickly. If he knows he would get some extra credits after solving those problems, he would be more inclined to finish them.

Once they get used to those happy (accomplished) feelings after solving tough problems, some will automatically jump to those tough problems without your hints/extra credits. They become self motivated.

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    I'm not sure I agree, especially with the extra credits part. I think that often the weaker students can be inclined to see everything that is for "extra credit" as not for them. As for the hints, you have to be careful that you don't turn a tougher question into not that much tougher at all by adding too much of a hint. Figuring out how to approach a problem on your own is an important skill to acquire, and giving hints before they've even started trying to solve the problem can undermine the chance of students learning that. – Tara B Apr 11 '13 at 9:24
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    @TaraB I tend to agree with you if there is only one tough question. If there are multiple tough problems, it'll be up to the instructor to give extra credits/hints to each problem to encourage/help the students. The ultimate goal is to get the students self motivated. – scaaahu Apr 11 '13 at 9:44

I just would like to amend Vahid's answer, which I think goes in right direction.

Part of the problem is not that students wouldn't have the required skills, often they do not see a way forward. This is more about being "brave" enough to wage the war on the problem. To help with that, I think the following is essential:

  1. guide them through examples of the problem to show them that the problems of that kind are indeed approachable and solvable,
  2. more importantly, help them help themselves. Consider a discussion in which the class, or groups, or individuals would solve the problem themselves, but the teacher guides them through it. I.e., when they get stuck, asks the right questions, answers to which will put them back on track, or point out a mistake in their reasoning to fix a mistake they made.

Tough questions look scary and student get hopeless when they don't even know how to start thinking about the solution. That's why they get frustrated. My suggestion to prepare students for tough questions is as follows:

  1. Teach them various ways of approaching questions.

  2. Teach them to review (or rewrite) the data and assumptions of the question to understand what has been given and what has been asked to show (prove, compute, etc).

  3. Solving tough questions usually require a combination of different techniques, formulas and applying them in several steps. Make sure you give a hint about these techniques and steps or teach them to guess these steps. It is also useful if you teach them to break down long and complicated questions to several smaller and easier questions (of course if it is possible).

  4. Solve some examples of tough questions and explain them how you start thinking about the solution and how you proceed.


In the beginning of class I announce the handling of exercises. Where I am we pose weekly homework exercises and collect and grade them. The student have to collect enough points on the exercises to be allowed to take the oral exam (or, obtain a "attended" certificate. However, the threshold for "enough points" is set be each instructor. I usually set 50%. However, I communicate that there will always be tough questions and easier questions and that I do not suppose that any student has to solve all questions. If they want to work for 50% and make it, that is enough. If they want to be ambitious, they can go for 100%. I also communicate that there will be tough (and very tough) questions because I want that also very bright student can learn something. This often serves as a motivation to work on tougher questions. Of course, there are a lot of students who are comfortable with less. However, I set the 50% hurdle and have to make sure that everybody who passes it "has learned enough". On the upper end, the very tough questions ensure that the very good ones also learn something interesting.

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