Skills-challenge is a research-based measure from the Tell Them From Me surveys. It is a source of evidence linked to What works best and the School Excellence Framework.

What is it?

Skills-challenge, or instructional challenge, refers to the balance between students’ skill levels and the challenge of their school work. It is a measure of whether the level of challenge students experience in their learning is appropriate to their level of ability.

The Tell Them From Me surveys ask students about how challenged they feel by the work that they are completing in class, as well as how well they perform, determined by their grades and ranks in class reports and assessments. In secondary schools, students are asked only about subjects they are currently enrolled in from among English, Maths and Science. Students are classified into four groups: ‘low skills–high challenge’, ‘high skills–high challenge’, ‘low skills–low challenge’, and ‘high skills–low challenge’. The results are reported as a two-by-two table showing the percentage of students in each of the four groups. Students in the ‘low skills-low challenge’ and ‘high skills-high challenge’ groups are experiencing levels of instructional challenge that are appropriate to their ability.

Why is it important?

A match between challenge and ability is critical for intellectual engagement in learning. Students are most engaged when they are presented challenging tasks and they feel they have the skills to accomplish them. Students with high skills and low challenge tend to find school boring and of little relevance, while those with low skills and high challenge are more likely to experience anxiety and may be at risk of dropping out of school.

School improvement links

School Excellence Framework element What works best theme
Curriculum High expectations

Evidence base

Bagnell, A., Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2008). The prevalence of significant mental health problems among Canadian youth and their comorbidity with cognitive and health problems. Ottawa: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2010). The prevalence of anxiety among middle and secondary school students in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 101(Suppl.3), S19–S22.

Willms, J. D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement. “What did you do in school today?” research series: Report number one. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

Willms, J. D. (2003). Student engagement at school: A sense of belonging and participation. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Image: This explainer has been produced in collaboration with The Learning Bar

Explainers of the Tell Them From Me measures have been produced in collaboration with The Learning Bar. The Tell Them From Me measures are provided by, and remain the intellectual property of, The Learning Bar. The explainers can also be found online within the Tell Them From Me portal. Tell Them From Me and TTFM are trademarks of The Learning Bar.


  • Student engagement and wellbeing
  • Tell Them From Me

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
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