Cultivating a habit of constructive discomfort

by John Draeger, SUNY Buffalo State

As both a gym rat and an academic, I often think about the parallels between physical exercise and intellectual engagement. Both depend on individual ability and personal circumstances. Both can be done in variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Both require consistent practice and good habits. Both require metacognitive awareness of particular strategies and the likelihood that they will lead to progress towards goals. And because the process is dynamic, we need to cultivate continued awareness of our strategies for physical and intellectual engagement.

Further, I submit that both physical exercise and intellectual engagement require cultivating a habit of constructive discomfort.  It isn’t easy to push our bodies and minds, but maintaining physical and intellectual growth requires it. Unlike the discomfort that comes from putting off an entire week’s worth of exercise until Saturday or waiting until the night before to begin writing a paper, the benefits of constructive discomfort are derived from consistently pushing ourselves in a way that facilitates progress towards our goals.

Related to this notion of constructive discomfort, Vygotsky (1978) argues that learning is most effective within the “zone of proximal development.” It is the space slightly beyond a learner’s current knowledge base and skill level, but a place where learning is still within a person’s reach. It is aspirational without being discouraging. It is challenging without setting someone up for failure.  In the case of exercise, my long-term goal might be to run a marathon. Given my perceived level of fitness, I should probably start with a “couch to 5k” and move up to a marathon later. It is possible that I am in better shape than I think and I can push myself beyond the 5k now. By consciously attending to my state of health and progress towards my long-term goals, I can make micro-adjustments that keep me in the zone of constructive discomfort and headed in the right direction. Instructors can make similar micro-adjustments in the classroom as they gauge the level of student ability. Again, metacognitive awareness of student understanding and progress towards well-articulated goals is essential to identifying the best strategies for a given group of students. Much like a “couch to 5k” program, assignment scaffolding in the classroom can maintain an appropriate level of constructive discomfort and guide students through the zone of proximal development (Wass, Harland, and Mercer, 2011). As students become more aware of their own learning processes, they can learn to make their own micro-adjustments. If, for example, they find themselves bored by some particular piece of classroom content, then they might ask themselves whether it is because they are not being challenged (much like  runners capable of doing more than a 5k) or because they are overwhelmed (much like runners who start out strong only to “over train” and lag behind their goals). As a scholar seated at my writing table, I often find myself asking these sorts of questions about my writing process and making micro-adjustments to keep me in the zone of constructive discomfort and heading towards my goals.

A person can be uncomfortable in a multitude of ways and there is little to be gained by discomfort for the sake of discomfort. If, however, constructive discomfort can contribute to physical and intellectual growth, then we should strive for it. Because knowing whether some particular instance of discomfort is constructive requires a metacognitive awareness of our individual circumstances and individual goals, we should cultivate a habit of metacognitive awareness for our learning, fitness, or any other skill we hope to develop.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wass, R., Harland, T., and Mercer, A. (2011). “Scaffolding critical thinking in the zone of Proximal development.” Higher Education Research and Development, 30 (3), 317-328.


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