What Is Productive Struggle? [+ Strategies for Teachers]

teacher helping a student working on an assignment in class

Productive struggle – it sounds like an oxymoron but makes perfect sense when utilized properly in a classroom setting. When students engage in this strategic challenge, they’re encouraged to make more attempts than they may be used to and persevere through frustration to solve a problem. The goal is bigger than providing a correct answer — it’s about the process of getting there. Students can foster critical thinking skills, persistence, self-regulation, and more with productive struggle. There are many strategies for teachers to implement this concept once it is clearly understood.

What Is Productive Struggle? 

Why Productive Struggle Is Important

Key Elements of Productive Struggle

Benefits of Productive Struggle

Productive Struggle Implementation Strategies

Best Practices for Leveraging Productive Struggle

What Is Productive Struggle?

Productive struggle is intended to help students develop strong habits of the mind – perseverance, flexible thinking and active learning. This state of engagement can be somewhat uncomfortable for students as they experiment with trial-and-error, but well-trained teachers ensure proper guidance. Productive struggle can be implemented with varying subject matter, but is most common in K-12 math.

By practicing productive struggle, students go beyond passive reading, listening or watching. Their brains actually produce myelin – the protective covering surrounding nerve cells that control thinking and muscles – which helps with retaining new skills. Learners’ engagement with productive struggle is expected to be weak at first but will become the norm with practice.

Why Productive Struggle Is Important

Teachers who encourage productive struggle help students become highly successful problem solvers far beyond the classroom setting.

When students are encouraged struggle productively, as they attempt to solve a problem, they will start to ask themselves these questions:

  • Does anything jump out at me right away?
  • What is the question asking?
  • What information is provided?
  • What part might give me trouble?

Questions like these are a great start to concrete comprehension and engagement.

Productive struggle can be especially useful in the realm of mathematics, where instruction based solely on memorization and arithmetic all too often leads students to misunderstand and dislike math.

Key Elements of Productive Struggle

One of the goals of productive struggle is for students to be able to develop a conceptual understanding of a question and implement their own creative solution. These are some tips for teachers to assist with the process:

  • Communicate to students that not knowing how to solve a problem at the outset is not a failure, but instead an expected part of the process.
  • Encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Allow students to share their reasoning and support each others’ processes.
  • Reinforce that the trial-and-error process could come with feelings of discouragement — and that’s okay!

A productive struggle must:

  • Challenge a specific weakness, not just overwhelm a student
  • Exist in specific activities and assignments, not throughout the entire school day
  • Provide space for students to use metacognitive skills

It becomes unproductive when:

  • Students are overwhelmed by frustration because they are unclear on or unable to achieve the goal
  • Students are left on their own without support
  • Missteps along the way are not presented as an option

Throughout the process, teachers should be aware of providing motivation and constructive feedback without giving away any answers. Even if a strong attempt by a student does not work out, creative problem solving should be praised.

Benefits of Productive Struggle

The beauty of productive struggle is that there is no single way to do it. During authentic engagement with a math problem, for example, some students will choose to visually draw out the question with shapes while other classmates break the same question down into more manageable pieces.

Over time, problem-solving as a process will become the norm, helping students take ownership of their learning beyond the lesson at hand. Students who know how to productively struggle will learn to:

  • Plan strategies
  • Set goals
  • Understand that success comes from effort, not only innate abilities
  • Know how and when to ask for help

To get you started with this educational method, here are some examples of productive struggle:

  • Ask students to find multiple solutions
  • Dig deeper into why a solution worked and how it was discovered
  • Apply the same concept to different scenarios

Ways to Use Productive Struggle in the Classroom

Present a problem and step back to allow students to work through it on their own.

Practice over time to limit burnout. Students who space out their learning outperform students who try to learn everything in longer sessions.

Force the retrieval of memories by giving students frequent practice tests. Opting for short-answer questions instead of multiple choice is a great way to strengthen thought processes.

Interleaving, or mixing new lessons in with the old, is another great way to get students using their long-term memory over just the short-term.

Best Practices for Managing Productive Struggle

If students are struggling and asking for help, these are some best practices to consider:

  • Offer a new starting place
  • Present a problem-solving strategy
  • Acknowledge any perseverance
  • Foster a non-competitive learning environment
  • Set the stage with an attitude that no effort is wasted
  • Encourage exploration
  • Display work that demonstrates creative problem solving, not only top scores

For more resources, explore the Education Certificate through the University of San Diego’s Professional and Continuing Education program, intended to motivate teachers to improve and enhance their instructional techniques.


Download eBook: 5 Reasons Why Continuing Education Matters for Educators