Challenge vs. Threat Mindset: how to empower yourself and your students to rise to the challenge.

Posted December 7, 2017 by Luke Raskopf

As the timer ticks down on the competition clock, two students, Kevin and Adam, look up to the front of the room, each feeling his heart pump at a frantic pace. Both are far from calm as time winds down in the final stage of the contest and the judges wait with anticipation for their submissions. Much is the same for Kevin and Adam - the rules, the judges, the competitions; but they are living in different worlds in their heads. Kevin feels alert, ready to hurdle any obstacles; his body releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, preparing him for quick bursts of energy. Adam feels tense and agitated, vigilant for signs of disaster; his body releases cortisol, leaving him ready to withdraw. Confronted with identical tasks, these two young minds could not be responding more differently.

This scenario illustrates a common difference among students and adults alike as they face stressful or competitive situations. Scenes like this play out every day across the country. When confronted with a competitive stress, students (and humans, in general) will either view the stressor as a challenge or a threat. In social psychology these are sometimes termed “promotion” and “prevention” approaches or “gain” and “loss-prevention” orientations. Understanding the difference between viewing competitive situations as a challenge or viewing them as a threat can be a major factor in a student’s future success, especially those pursuing careers in which they will be faced with similarly stressful situations.

Whether competing in the Modeling the Future ChallengePhysicsbowl, the National Speech and Debate Tournament, the National Robotics Challenge, or any of the hundreds of other national academic competitions in the ICS database, students like Kevin and Adam frequently find themselves with starkly different views of the world around them. For some, the complex, thorny problems presented in competitions are seen as challenges -- tasks which excite the students and provoke the body’s release of relevant hormones to rise to the occasion. For others, the same difficult problem is seen as a threat, an event that has the chance to take away from their already existing set of resources.

We’ve discussed the idea of challenge and threat mindsets at ICS in our list of 7 Best-practices for Educators and Coaches but we wanted to get a deeper understanding of the science behind it and explore the mechanism that produces these wildly varying responses to stressful or competitive situations. Most importantly, we wanted to highlight specific interventions and concrete steps that instructors can take to empower their students to move towards seeing more challenges and fewer threats.


What is this Challenge Versus Threat Business Really?

Put simply, the Challenge Mindset (or gain orientation) is when we view a stressful or competitive situation as an opportunity to increase our set of resources, while a Threat Mindset is when that stressful situation is viewed as an opportunity in which we may lose some of our already existing resources.

Thinking about sporting situations can help us understand the difference. We’re probably all familiar with the 7th inning slump. Or the 3rd quarter drought. In the 2017 NFL Superbowl, the New England Patriots were down by 25 points in the 3rd quarter. The chances of a comeback win looked to be somewhere between slim and none. But then, the tides turned. The Falcons stopped attacking. They stopped taking risks and making aggressive plays. This allowed Tom Brady and his cohort to march back, drive after drive, and orchestrate one of the greatest Superbowl comebacks of all time. What happened here? In the 3rd quarter, the Falcons switched from a “gain” mindset into a “loss-prevention” mindset. Instead of taking the calculated risks that they needed in order to score against a good team like the Patriots, they started trying to protect the large lead they had built up over the first half.

We can see this pattern over and over again, not only in sports, but in all types of competitive situations. It also has great implications for companies and their team building efforts. In an educational context, helping students learn to maintain a Challenge Mindset can make them more employable job candidates and more successful employees. Whenever we are faced with a competitive or stressful situation, we risk something. How we view that risk is the difference between Challenge and Threat Mindsets.

The bright side of this is that no mindset is fixed. There is nothing in our genetic code that says a student will always view competitive situations as a challenge or that another student will always view them as a threat. Each situation is unique, and the environmental factors around the participants can have great impact on whether they view the situation as a challenge or a threat.


How can Educators and Academic Coaches Help?

First, it’s worth taking a minute to recognize that the power of mindset in students is well-documented. As a University of Chicago research team explains, “beliefs about intelligence and attributions for academic success or failure are more strongly associated with school performance than is actual measured ability (i.e., test scores).” In other words, whether a student believes they’re capable of a task is a better predictor of success in the classroom than their actual ability!

In challenge and threat terms, there’s a clear pattern of which mindset yields better results. Research into “Approach” and “Avoidance” goals has shown that directing one’s efforts towards a positive or desirable goal yields more success than aiming to avoid a negative or undesirable one. Classroom social psychology research has concluded that orienting oneself towards seeking gains leads to more positive “academic self-concept, task value, and performance,” while avoiding losses has negative consequences on student motivation, learning, performance, willingness to cheat, and anxiety levels.

So, we know that Challenge Mindset, "Approach" goals, or “gain-orientation” can be beneficial in approaching stressful or competitive situations. The obvious next question, then, is how exactly do we help our students enter these situations with a positive Challenge-Mindset versus the negative Threat-Mindset? Thankfully, science has some guidance for us there as well. We’ve organized a few simple, science-backed ways to help students (or anyone) maintain or regain a “gain-orientation” in their competitive experiences. We hope that educators and coaches of all types can use these tools to help students in any competitions they tackle.


  1.    Reverse Grading for Mastery

Grading is an easy target in any conversation about education. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators can often agree that the current system of evaluating students is far from ideal. But it’s hard to see whether the main problem is grades squashing motivation by replacing intrinsic incentives with extrinsic ones, an obsession with quantifying results that exacerbates student anxiety, a cut-throat atmosphere created by comparing students to one another, or something entirely different.

Some educators have suggested that a subtractive grading system leads to the negative “threat” mindset and that reverse grading offers a solution. Starting students off with a set number of points that they must protect in order to pass might seem harmless or even beneficial to students. But basing an evaluation system on avoiding a loss of points directly contradicts empirical evidence that “orientation toward prevention of loss correlates negatively with well-being in younger adults.”

Games and sports, from basketball to Pokemon, typically start players at zero and reward progress with points as they learn the required skills or reach concrete goals. “The way that education can most learn from games,” one teacher and advocate argues, “is by borrowing these systems of mastery based progression and additive point earning.” Counting upwards won’t necessarily eliminate student stress or anxiety about performance, but it certainly seems more likely to set students in a “gain” rather than a “loss-prevention” orientation.

However, an even more important factor than the direction in which grades are counted might be whether a student is graded for mastery, says cognitive psychology researcher Daniel Greene. “An assignment is most powerful when it’s doable and relevant, and can be resubmitted as many times as a student wants -- when learning for mastery is the goal,” he explains. This emphasis on mastery over performance is also supported by educational psychology literature, which suggests, “a mastery goal orientation promotes a motivational pattern likely to promote long-term and high-quality involvement in learning. Instructors can stimulate this mastery orientation through grading by ensuring that their evaluations provide students with opportunities for improvement, instead of taking points away for mistakes.

The keys for educators here are two-fold: (1) reverse grading to start with zero and add points for skills gained or knowledge learned, and (2) allow students to re-do assignments so that they can learn for mastery of the subject. If they only earn 60 points on the first test, provide specific feedback and let them try again.


  1.    Create Challenge-Oriented Practice

Anson Dorrance began coaching the UNC Women’s Soccer Team in 1979. Since then, he has collected national and conference championships at a stupendous rate, earning 22 overall national titles. His 1982-2000 women’s soccer team was named the 6th best sports dynasty of all time by Beckett Entertainment. Needless to say, Dorrance knows how to coach teams with a Challenge Mindset. One specific tool he uses, as noted in Po Bronson’s and Ashley Merryman’s book “Tog Dog,” is to conduct specific, targeted tasks of attacking a problem. He does this in order to help his team remain in a Challenge Mindset. When the team goes up by a point or two, they don’t sit on their heels, trying to protect their lead. They train specifically to continue attacking at that point, to keep from falling into a Threat Mindset.

Educators can use this technique as well. By practicing attacking a challenge even if it seems unnecessary or too risky, students begin to internalize the skills needed to maintain a challenge oriented mindset.


  1. Recognize and Rewire.

Possibly one of the easiest ways educators can support students as coaches in academic competitions is through simply recognizing when they have taken on a Threat Mindset. It’s often very hard for a person in a competitive situation to recognize this on their own. It takes an objective, outside observer to identify the difference in how the student is performing. Once this is identified, a coach can address it directly with the students by helping them to see the change themselves or implementing strategies to help them attack the challenge. The first step to solving the Threat Mindset problem is in helping the students recognize when it is there.


What now?

At the base of all of this, the first thing for every educator or academic coach to recognize is that Challenge and Threat Mindsets exist are they not static. They change, and can change rapidly. Even within the course of a single competition, students can switch between a “gain” and a “loss-prevention” orientation, perhaps even multiple times. Understanding the differences between these orientations is critical to helping students be successful not only in academic competitions, but also in future college and career opportunities where they are sure to face more and more challenging, stressful situations.

It is also clear that all of us, coaches, parents, and educators can take concrete steps to help ourselves and our students move from seeing the academic world as crawling with threats to full of challenges. While most education fads never fail to promise more than they deliver, rigorous research backs up these strategies. Of course, some educators might question whether they’re “the sort of people who do bold things like that in their classroom.” If so, it might be time to lead by example and be the first to recognize your own threats and change them into challenges!


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