What Is Productive Struggle in the Classroom?

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Many teachers intuitively look to familiar activities that have been widely used for decades when teaching new material. These include having students repeatedly reading and highlighting texts and intensively practicing one skill or problem type to “burn it into memory” before moving on to the next. These methods do work in the short run when the only goal is to display the new information or skill on an immediate assessment, yet the learning quickly dissipates and can’t be retrieved for future application to a new situation.

On the other hand, durable mastery of the academic skills and content set forth in more rigorous state standards, including the Common Core State Standards, is evidenced by deep conceptual understanding and procedural fluency that transfers to new situations and persists over time. Empirical cognitive and neuroscience research shows that this kind of learning is achieved only through productive struggle in the classroom.

But what is the definition of productive struggle, and why is it important?

The Definition of Productive Struggle

Significant, durable academic learning is difficult. When students expend effort to grapple with perplexing problems or make sense of challenging ideas, they engage in a process of productive struggle—effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching—that builds useful, lasting understanding and skill.

Why Is Productive Struggle Important?

Effort and persistence matter so much because we encounter new information through our limited short-term working memory system, which focuses attention by filtering out most environmental stimuli. Working memory holds the attended-to information for only a few seconds, seeking meaning through associations between the new material and what we already know.

Then, the more we actively work with the new material over time to strengthen those associations, the better organized and integrated into our existing knowledge via interconnected neural networks or schemas of long-term memory, meaning, and understanding it becomes. Building robust, lasting connections between new and old information requires conscious effort to repeatedly pull the newer information from memory, including making mistakes along the way and correcting them through feedback and further practice.

Productive struggle also enhances students’ metacognitive self-regulation—the ability to set learning goals, plan strategies to meet those goals, monitor progress, and know when and how to ask for help along the way. Critical thinking requires these types of self-regulation and thought processes.

Key Elements of Productive Struggle

Motivation, persistence, and scaffolded support through targeted explanatory feedback are key elements of productive struggle.

Motivation and persistence: When a learning goal is clear and the level of challenge is not too low or too high, students are more likely to be internally motivated to engage in productive struggle to achieve the goal.

Opportunities for choice, collaboration, use of interesting texts, and hands-on activities bolster student motivation, while too many competing demands for attention can diminish student resolve to persist toward an academic goal.

Furthermore, motivation for productive struggle requires a “growth mindset”—the understanding that success is a result of effort more than of raw ability. A growth mindset makes students eager for new challenges and enthusiastic, rather than fearful, about learning from mistakes. Students who believe that their ability levels are inherent and “fixed” are less motivated to engage in productive struggle because they fear failure, resist risks, and worry about the judgments of others, thwarting their own learning.

Support and feedback: The durability of students’ motivation to persist in struggling to achieve an academic goal is mediated by the quality of the teacher–student relationship and the scaffolding provided through feedback. Struggle in academic learning contexts is not productive when students become frustrated because the goal is unclear or far out of reach, they do not feel safe to fail, or they do not receive adequate, appropriate support. Struggle can be destructive in this situation, and teachers need to intervene after finding that students are not making any progress and feeling that their efforts are pointless.

Effective feedback makes clear to students what the goal is, what progress they are making toward that goal, and what they need to do next to make better progress. Instead of merely correcting students’ errors, effective feedback guides students to develop better strategies for processing and understanding the material so that they gain mastery, confidence, and motivation to continue to invest effort in productive struggle.

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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 the white paper "Productive Struggle for Deeper Learning" by Marcella L. Bullmaster-Day, EdD.

This blog post was originally published in April 2019 and was updated in October 2021.

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