Personalize Challenge to Inspire Confidence in Learning

A few weeks ago, friends and I went to an obstacle course activity in the forest. To be clear, this was not your friendly, neighbourhood obstacle course. It was originally designed for military training in the 70’s and more recently, it was opened to the public in the name of “fun” and “good times”. Being the fun-and-good-time-loving-people we are, we decided to give it a try.

We arrived at the location on a hot and sunny morning, far from the lush comforts of our fair city. We walked into the forest to meet our guide. There, he asked us to put on the harnesses that lay on the ground waiting for us. Each harness had two ropes attached to it with a carabiner at the other end. The carabiners were used to clip onto loops bolted in trees, ensuring our safety. There was also an attachment on the harness for zip-lining. Our training began five-feet off the ground. We learned how to properly attach ourselves using the carabiners and the procedure for maneuvering across the platforms.

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With the basic training complete, we headed off on a two and a half hour trail with three courses to cross, each increasing in height and difficulty. The first course was an hour long. As we jumped from platform to platform, swinging and zip-lining, we used all the strength of our arms and legs. It felt like we were enacting old video games like Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong. It was all “fun” and “good times”, until I reached an unmanageable obstacle.

The challenge required that we jump from a platform to catch a Tarzan rope and swing into a net-wall, latch on, and then cross the net-wall to the next platform. I was last in line and when it was my turn to jump I just froze. I was so afraid that my arms wouldn’t hold me as I swung across and that I would fall to the forest floor. My friends tried cheering me on, they tried describing their process, and finally, they tried describing how good I would feel once it was done. But I fell deeper into the stress and the seconds felt like minutes passing. I began to feel like I was holding up the group and the social pressure made it impossible to move. Then, our guide told me that the trick was to put my feet directly on the knot at the bottom of the rope and to just step off the platform. In doing this, he said, I would simply swing across. This trick coupled with fear of disappointing my friends egged me off the platform ledge and into the net.

When I landed everyone celebrated my accomplishment. I felt really proud but my confidence was shaken, nonetheless.

As we moved forward, the obstacles became increasingly wobbly. Now platforms, too, were swinging and I had to rely on my arms to hold me up for dear life. By the time I reached the end of the first course I had froze on multiple occasions. Each time, I felt less and less confident in my ability to move forward and more and more like a burden to the group. I thought to myself “I’ve had enough”, “get me out of here!” and a few times, I yelled it. I held on so tightly to the ropes that my fingernails dug through the gloves we were wearing and into my hand. It was blistering hot, physically onerous, and tightrope-level high. At this point, the anxiety and the fear took over and the fun died. Nevertheless, I persisted for my friends and for myself. Though, at this stage, only ego was left to motivate me.

Everyone insisted that I go first for the second course so that we could all stick closer together. As I approached the first challenge — four giant swinging platforms forty feet high — I choked. I started to panic as the platform beneath began to swing uncontrollably. I cried out, “ guys, I’m so over this!” A friend came up to ease the platform’s swing and I got off and climbed down.

On the ground, I felt some shame, but mostly relief. From then on, I supported the others as I followed along with our guide on the ground — the safe, solid, stationary ground. I was happy on the ground. I started making jokes and was on my way back to fun and good times. But when the others reached the end of the final course and began to celebrate their major feat, I felt like I couldn’t celebrate with them. I couldn’t go home and tell my family about how I killed it at the obstacle course. I couldn’t join in the dreaming of the next crazy activity we would try.

I did some good reflecting on this experience, especially when prompted with a feedback request via email. I felt like I had started off with a fitting degree of challenge — which allowed me to enjoy myself through the first bit. But the challenge-level increased in such large increments that I was unable to develop the proportionate amount of the confidence to move forward from obstacle to obstacle. Secondly, I noticed when I was watching from the ground that they would often let go of the ropes entirely to take a break and consider the best course of action. I realized that in my moments of anxiety, I forgot that I was wearing a harnesses, that it was completely secure, and that I couldn’t fall to my doom. Upon reflection, I realized that I hadn’t trusted my harness at all. During the training, I had conceptually grasped that I was securely attached and that I could not fall, but I didn’t actually test it. So, I didn’t commit letting myself fall to my repertoire of strategies for this activity. Without that mental and physical recuperation that the hang-time afforded, my fear took over and I decided I was unable to do something I was completely capable of.

How I felt during this obstacle course was terribly visceral, but still similar to how people can feel when they are in a high-stakes learning or training situation. An optimal experience needs to be created for learners to be engaged in an activity from beginning to end. An optimal experience requires certain conditions. The first and most important condition is that the perceived challenges stretch one’s existing skills, making things interesting in the first place. The second is clear goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made. The experience of engaging in “just manageable” challenges by tackling a series of goals, continuously processing feedback about progress, and adjusting action based on feedback is the key to sustaining engagement and creating the perception of progress.

Creating this kind of learning situation is difficult because if a challenge begins to exceed the learners skills, they becomes nervous, as I did. Essentially, on that platform I entered into a frame of mind that impeded my engagement and my progress in the activity. If skills exceed the challenge we get too comfortable and can become bored. The relationship between the learner and the challenge requires knowing the learner, their context, and careful design. When all this comes together and the right challenge is at hand, the learner is in an ordered state of mind — thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and actions are streamlined. This is the state we need to bring about in our learners, by creating situations that provide challenges that stretch skills without straining confidence.

Another important take-away from this is that if you are learning for doing, it’s best to learn by doing. The training gave me the technical ability to maneuver and showed me how to unlock my carabiner and latch it on to a loop properly. It did not, however, address the obvious psychological aspect of the activity. Taking a few minutes to practice falling would have gone a long way and taken the mystery out of letting go.

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