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Sanfords Theory of Challenge & Support

What does this theory have to do with the Writing Center?

The Writing Center is vital to supporting students academically, but we can also
influence other aspects of a students development. We can help students
transition to college, develop success behaviors and attitudes, and adapt to new
classes and environments.

Three Keys to Student Development:

1. Challenge
2. Readiness
3. Support

Personal development occurs through responses to challenges. Think of
challenges broadly. Everyone has their own comfort zone, yet we also face
situations where the responses that were successful in the past will no longer work.
We have to adapt and provide a new response. According to Sanford, this change
allows growth to occur.
Challenges can be academic and personal. Students must adapt to be successful in
college. Their high school habits will not always be effective in college courses.
Part of becoming educated is developing the ability to respond to new situations.
While challenges are necessary for growth, too much or too little challenge hinders
student development. If the challenge is too great, students may attempt to escape
it or might maintain their previous modes of behavior. If the challenge is too small,
students are not pushed to move forward. There is an optimal amount of
challenge that allows for development. This challenge depends on the students
readiness and available support.

Students are unable to demonstrate certain behaviors until they are ready. There
are two categories of readiness: cognitive and non-cognitive. Think of cognitive
readiness as academic preparedness or capability. Students may or may not be
academically prepared for their course. Non-cognitive readiness is more complex,
consisting of emotional, social, and psychological factors. In other words, students
may not feel prepared; they might lack confidence in their ability
Note that readiness is not a constant; cognitive and non-cognitive readiness levels
vary in different situations. The two types of readiness are also interconnected. For
example, a high level of academic preparation may give a student greater
confidence, thereby increasing that students overall readiness. In the Writing
Center, we work with students at any readiness level and should be able to adapt as

Support can help bridge the gap between students readiness level and their ability
to respond to a challenge. For example, a student in developmental writing may

not be ready to take on a writing project independently. However, with support from
the instructor and from the Writing Center, the student can learn how to respond to
this challenge and be successful.
Support is important, but too much support is counterproductive because it
essentially removes the challenge for the student. If students dont have to respond
to that challenge, they will not develop. It is not our job to remove challenges for
students, but it is our job to support them and provide them with tools to remove
the barriers for themselves. How we actually do this will depend on the individual
students readiness their level of confidence, skill, and independence.

Sanford & Sessions

Weve been using Sanfords theory in sessions without realizing this was even a
published theory. Being aware of the theory, however, allows us to be more
Generally, students come to us for support with discrete writing tasks. Sometimes
students are focused on the wrong challenge and we need to redirect them. Other
times, the barrier the student is facing is not about writing but is rather about a lack
of successful academic behavior. Our job as Writing Coaches is to look for these
factors, assess the students readiness, and provide the appropriate support for that
We wont get it right every time. We have only thirty minutes to an hour with any
given student. Still, understanding the relationship between challenge, support,
and readiness will increase our awareness in sessions, helping us know what to look
for and how to move forward. Be intentional in your sessions and remember that
your role is to enhance student development, not assignment completion.