Dim 2: Cognitive Demand


Researchers use the term “cognitive demand” to describe the level of difficulty, relative to what they know, of the work that students are asked to engage in. The goal is to find a middle ground, where students have opportunities to build on what they know and stretch their current understandings. In order to make sense of rich content, students need to engage in “productive struggle” (Stein and Smith, 1998; Hess, 2006). One broad schema for thinking about different levels of challenge is Webb’s (1997, 2002) Depth-of-Knowledge (DOK) framework, which identifies four levels of DOK: Recall & Reproduction, Skills & Concepts, Strategic Thinking & Reasoning, Extended Thinking (see also Hess, 2013). At various times, students need to engage at all of these levels.

When students experience difficulty dealing with complex issues there is a tendency for teachers to reduce cognitive demand, and thus to deprive the students of opportunities for productive struggle and sense-making (Henningsen and Stein, 1997). The challenge for instruction in all disciplines is to provide clarifications and other support (e.g., heuristic advice, raising issues, suggesting approaches) without telling students precisely what to do. This is by no means easy (but see Dimension 5, formative assessment).

There are many ways that teachers can initiate cognitively demanding activities in the classroom, and work to maintain appropriate levels of cognitive demand. For example,

  • In designing and selecting tasks, teachers can avoid providing detailed step-by-step instructions for solving problems, repetitive exercises, or detailed “recipes” for completing tasks that allow little room for students to build on their current understandings.
  • Teachers can actively support students in individual work, group work, and whole class discussions by asking clarifying questions and providing scaffolds, instead of moving directly to suggesting overly specific ways to go about assigned tasks.
  • Teachers can employ a range of techniques to support students in “getting their ideas on the table” and working through them. See, for example, SERP (2016) on academically productive talk.
  • Teachers can encourage students’ productive struggle in a general way by discussing ideas of malleable intelligence and a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007), making it clear that learning is not a matter of memorization, and that one gets better at any discipline by working hard at it.

Connections among TRU dimensions:

As noted above, “productive struggle” is the mechanism for developing deep understanding of the content (Dimension 1). It is essential for all students (Dimension 3), not only for meaningful participation but so that students engage with the content in ways that they come to “own” it and develop positive disciplinary identities (Dimension 4). And, the best way to arrange for students to be working at the right levels of challenge is to make their thinking publicly accessible, so instruction can “meet them where they are” in order to support their moving forward (Dimension 5).

See the tools sections for a deeper discussion and pointers to further resources.