How to Promote Productive Struggle in Your Classroom

Productive struggle is characterized by consistent effort and perseverance rather than simple memorization or basic reading and highlighting. As we wrote in a recent blog post, productive struggle leads to a greater conceptual understanding and procedural fluency of a subject. Students should be able to transfer what they learn to new situations.

Productive struggle is fostered through what psychologists have termed desirable difficulties, challenges that compel the learner to repeatedly retrieve information over time, thereby strengthening long-term memory for flexible transfer of the information to new contexts later. Strategies for desirable difficulties include low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; mixing or “interleaving” different types of problems; and spacing study and practice over time and locations.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these in depth to better understand how to promote productive struggle in your school or classroom.

Quizzing and Self-Testing

The retrieval-enhanced practice of low-stakes, ongoing quizzing or formative assessment requires students to express, from memory, what they understand about new material and allows them to pinpoint and correct their knowledge gaps or misconceptions. Productive low-stakes testing methods include:

  • creating flashcards
  • generating summaries, outlines, and questions
  • explaining the material to oneself, also known as elaborate interrogation
  • explicitly relating new material to other examples
  • taking multiple-choice or constructed-response tests
Spaced (Distributed) Practice

Spreading study, quizzing, and practice sessions over time and locations has been shown to produce lasting learning because long-term memory of the material is strengthened each time information is actively retrieved. Spaced practice involves productive struggle, as it entails some forgetting, mistakes, corrections, and re-learning.

Mixed (Interleaved) Practice

On standardized tests and in real-world situations, questions and problems do not come to students with labels naming the type of problem and revealing which strategies, skills, or algorithms should be invoked to solve the problem or respond to the question. Therefore, practicing different kinds of questions and problems builds learning-for-transfer more effectively than the more common massed-practice approach of working on one type of problem at a time until it appears that students have mastered it before moving on to the next. Interleaving problem types requires students to ask themselves, “What kind of problem is this? What do I need to do? Where should I start?” They must engage in the productive struggle of retrieval to answer these questions.

Engage Students in Productive Struggle

Research shows that adaptive online instruction with practice is conducive to expanding student learning time, personalizing learning tasks, and engaging students in effective productive struggle. Edtech solutions like Waggle provide students with rich opportunities to gain confidence and competence in meeting more rigorous standards through productive struggle in a safe, positive environment with in-the-moment feedback, scaffolded instruction, and personalized pathways to retrieval practice.


Learn more about Waggle, the award-winning personalized learning program, and how it engages students in Grades 2–8 in productive struggle to grow proficiency.

The information in this blog post originated from a white paper by Marcella L. Bullmaster-Day, EdD.