Intellectual Risk Taking

What is Intellectual Risk Taking?

Although often overlooked, intellectual (intelligent, calculated) risk taking is a critical skill in learning across subject areas. These risks are “a special class of risk taking called intellectual risk taking (IRT). IRT is defined here as engaging in adaptive learning behaviors (sharing tentative ideas, asking questions, attempting to do and learn new things) that place the learner at risk of making mistakes or appearing less competent than others” (Beghetto, 2007). It takes risk to ask questions; it takes risk to answer questions; we consistently ask our kids to take risks, but we never teach them how to do it safely, or how to inevitably fail. Instead, we build a world and education system that requires risk, only to teach them perfection is what is expected.

Some argue that this fear of being imperfect affects female students more than male students (Saujani, 2016).  So, extra care and attention may need to be paid to some in order to achieve a strong result, a student who isn’t afraid to give things a try.

Strategies to Foster Intellectual Risk Taking

Creating A Safe Classroom Environment
The very first requisite to fostering risk-taking in students is having a safe environment in which to do it. There are unlimited ways to accomplish this, but some of the most important are developing strong relationships with your students (Thorton, 2015). Knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and ensuring that their weaknesses and insecurities are not ever exploited. Teachers should model strong social behaviors and promote the same behaviors, be adamant about bullying and exclusion, and encourage active participation (Dusenbury, 2012). Taking risks is frightening, the least teachers can do is make the environment where students try safe.

Setting up Regular Designated Meetings

Alongside knowing their strength and weakness and developing strong relationships. Arranging a certain amount of one-on-one meetings with students is powerful in allowing them to feel comfortable trying in your classroom. The may be general check ins, or they could be arranged around certain assignments, such a paper writing or exam feedback. Oral feedback tends to be more detailed and easier to understand, and allows a safe zone for students to take the first risk, in asking questions about their mistakes or pitching ideas.

Support Risk Taking Attempts
Instead of pointing out inaccuracies, try heavily praising the risk it required. Even more, let the class know the benefits of that risk (Thorton, 2015). When students feel that taking chances are celebrated, they are more likely to take the risk themselves. Whether it is an actual reward for risk-taking or just praise and acknowledgement, the act of receiving positive feedback, regardless of success, increases the likelihood of future risk taking. This is incredibly important with student volunteers, if the average student volunteers and falls short, it should somehow always be met with a positive response. “Oh, that was close!” “You’re on the right track, but consider…” “Man! How brave it was to volunteer.”

For particularly shy students, a follow up at the end of the lesson about how much you appreciated their effort or how great their participation was that day is always nice. Commenting or furthering a specific point they made is even better, it allows them to know you are actually engaged in what they are saying.

Inquiry Fueled Learning
It may not be what you teach that matters, but how you teach it definitely matters when cultivating risk-takers. Inquiry based learning is considered especially conducive to student risk taking. It allows for “open-ended forms of thinking [which creates] 1) The disposition to be broad and adventurous and 2) the disposition towards wondering and problem-finding” (Grotzer). Allowing for the inquiry process in learning is possibly across all subject areas, and the effects resonate through critical thinking, content understanding, and independent learning development.

Effort Based Homework Scores

This strategy is not to be taken lightly or abused. It is not an attempt to grade less, but instead actually requires grading more! Homework doesn’t always have to be scored the first, second, or even third time. What can matter with this strategy is genuine effort and the willingness to see it through to perfection. Now, this strategy only works with substantive homework. If it is multiple choice, the act of correcting is of much lesser value.

A consistent and open flow of student work, teacher feedback, student improvement though, in the writing process for example, can foster far greater results than just the traditional, static scores with feedback after the completed process.

Try offering detailed feedback on proposals, sources and research notes, outlines, first drafts, and every draft they need after. Not only is student growth higher, but students are much more willing to take risks in things like applying difficult text structures, utilizing high level sources, and attempting higher level word choice, when they know they cannot fail.


Beghetto, R. A. (2009, May 9). Correlates of intellectual risk taking in elementary school science.   Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(2), 210-223. doi:10.1002/ tea.20270

Grotzer, T. (n.d.). The Keys to Inquiry Section II: Big Messages to Communicate Around Learning from Experience. Retrieved December 2, 2016, from https://hea-

Saujani, R. (2016, March). Teach girls bravery, not perfection. Retrieved December 4, 2016, from reshma_saujani_teach_girls_bravery_not_perfection

Thorton, Michael. (2015, August 31). Creating Space for Risk. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from

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