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Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

How to instill a growth mind-set in your students.

By Marcella Bullmaster-Day and Aleta Cruel | April 21, 2015

It’s a challenge educators face every day. Engaging students in meaningful academic learning is no small task. They often get discouraged, stuck in a perpetual cycle of being unable to tap into their full potential. However, when students grapple with problems or work to make sense of challenging ideas, they engage in a process of productive struggle—effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching to build lasting understanding and skills.

Typically, most students work at learning through rote repetition; for example, reading and rereading a text or solving problems of the same type that practice the same skill set to burn that individual skill into memory. These activities have short-term benefits when they are employed right before a test, but they rarely lead to meaningful, long-term learning. Often, the student is unable to recall the information at a later date and has to relearn it.

In contrast, successfully meeting the more rigorous Common Core standards requires building long-lasting understanding of concepts so that students can apply previously learned facts and skills to new situations. This kind of durable knowledge is achieved through productive struggle.

Productive struggle entails effort and persistence. Students encounter new information through their limited short-term working memory, which concentrates attention by filtering out most environmental stimuli. Working memory holds new information for only a few seconds while it seeks associations between the new material and concepts students already know. The more actively students work with new material over time, the stronger the associations and the better new facts and skills are organized and integrated into existing knowledge. Building lasting connections between new and old information requires conscious work to repeatedly retrieve newer information from memory, including making and correcting mistakes through feedback and practice.

Productive struggle also enhances a student’s ability to set learning goals, plan strategies to meet those goals, monitor progress, and know when and how to ask for help.

When a learning goal is clear and the challenge is set at the appropriate level, students are more likely to be motivated to engage in productive struggle to achieve the goal.

Motivation for productive struggle requires
a “growth mind-set,” the understanding that success is a result of effort more than of raw ability. A growth mind-set makes students eager for new challenges and fosters an enthusiasm for learning from mistakes. Students who believe their ability levels are “fixed” are less motivated to engage in productive struggle because they fear failure, resist risks, and worry about the judgments of others, which impedes their learning.

To motivate students, teachers must find ways to inspire them. How do we help students see the value of productive struggle in their everyday lives? For example, top athletes challenge themselves and struggle to become great. They put tremendous effort into their practice. When they fall, they pick themselves up and work to improve their technique. They don’t become great overnight.

A student’s drive to persist in the face of a challenge is affected by the quality of the teacher-student relationship and the scaffolding provided through feedback and support. When a student becomes frustrated because the goal is unclear or out of reach, it is up to the teacher to intervene as soon as it is apparent that the student is not making progress.

Effective feedback clarifies goals and helps students measure their progress and understand what they need to do next. Instead of merely correcting student errors, effective feedback guides students to develop better strategies for processing and understanding the material so that they gain mastery, confidence, and motivation. Digital tools can also provide useful feedback through access to hints and customized suggestions, which empower students to seek help when they need it.

Several strategies have proved particularly effective for building lasting learning by challenging students to repeatedly retrieve information over time, thereby strengthening long-term memory and transfer. These include low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; spacing study and practice over time and locations; and mixing different types of problems.

Low-stakes, ongoing quizzing 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 flash cards; generating summaries, outlines and questions; and taking multiple-choice or constructed-response tests.

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. And 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. This is an area in which personalized digital practice tools that challenge students at their individual levels of performance, allowing them to progress at their own pace, are particularly useful.

Teachers who use these strategies to motivate and engage their students in productive struggle for lasting learning are able to identify individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, adjust goals appropriately, and accelerate academic achievement. Look for tools and ideas that facilitate this model and begin setting students on a path to lifelong academic success.