Mathematics Education Research Journal

, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 283–311 | Cite as

Student reflections on learning with challenging tasks: ‘I think the worksheets were just for practice, and the challenges were for maths’

  • James RussoEmail author
  • Sarah Hopkins
Original Article


The current study considered young students’ (7 and 8 years old) experiences and perceptions of mathematics lessons involving challenging (i.e. cognitively demanding) tasks. We used the Constant Comparative Method to analyse the interview responses (n = 73) regarding what work artefacts students were most proud of creating and why. Five themes emerged that characterised student reflections: enjoyment, effort, learning, productivity and meaningful mathematics. Overall, there was evidence that students embraced struggle and persisted when engaged in mathematics lessons involving challenging tasks and, moreover, that many students enjoyed the process of being challenged. In the second section of the paper, the lesson structure preferences of a subset of participants (n = 23) when learning with challenging tasks are considered. Overall, more students preferred the teach-first lesson structure to the task-first lesson structure, primarily because it activated their cognition to prepare them for work on the challenging task. However, a substantial minority of students (42 %) instead endorsed the task-first lesson structure, with several students explaining they preferred this structure precisely because it was so cognitively demanding. Other reasons for preferring the task-first structure included that it allowed the focus of the lesson to be on the challenging task and the subsequent discussion of student work. A key implication of these combined findings is that, for many students, work on challenging tasks appeared to remain cognitively demanding irrespective of the structure of the lesson.


Challenging tasks Cognitively demanding tasks Lesson structure Student perceptions Student learning preferences Problem-based learning Early years 


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Copyright information

© Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

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