Deepen student capacity for productive struggle

Deepen student capacity for productive struggle


Imagine watching a student sit down and begin an assignment. They read the task and within thirty seconds, they’re slumped over their paper with their head on the desk. There is complaining. There may be tears or just silence. How do you get this child back on track? Often in this situation, the instinct of adults is to over-scaffold support and eliminate the need for students to struggle. It is extremely difficult to watch a frustrated child. We feel bad, and we want to help. But this instinct can have negative consequences for learners.

Productive struggle is the process of working through a challenging academic task. It combines critical thinking skills, persistence, self-regulation, and an understanding of why we may be feeling frustrated and how to move through these feelings (University of San Diego PCE). Neuroscientists have found that our brains produce more myelin when we are struggling through a challenging problem. Myelin increases the strength of brain signals between neurons, enabling signals to travel faster — an indication that deep learning is occurring.

Building productive struggle is a critical component of culturally responsive classrooms. For students with different identities and learning profiles who have received negative messages about their abilities and internalized these messages, over-scaffolding can be crippling (Ferlazzo, 2015). Offering too much support can reinforce “learned helplessness” where students are always at a loss about how to start a task or how to get unstuck when confused.

The challenge for teachers is to find tasks that are rigorous — but not overwhelming — for students, and to find the “sweet spot” between struggle, scaffolding, and support. As students build endurance for struggle, their sweet spot moves, requiring less scaffolding and support as their confidence and strategy toolboxes grow. Part of this progress requires reframing mistakes as important opportunities for learning, and refuting negative self-talk that can lead students to shut down.


  • When we reframe struggle as both a natural part of the learning process and a worthwhile challenge to undertake, we encourage students to persevere and develop deep understanding (Pasquale, 2016).
  • Research has shown that strengthening students’ academic confidence — and academic mindsets — help combat the effects of poverty. Students in classrooms with a strong culture of thinking have been shown to be more engaged, have more positive perceptions of learning, be more ready to explore new content, and be better positioned for higher-order problem solving (Claro et al., 2016; Salmon, 2008; Gardner, 1991; Ritchhart, 2015).
  • In a study of high school engineering students, data reveals a statistically significant (p=0.05) change in mindset after supportive productive struggle (Miller, 2020). The data suggest that supportive productive struggle experiences do increase student ability to make progress through challenges, including doing so with a more positive outlook on the experience.
  • In a 2008 study, seventh-grade students who regularly practice solving complex open-ended problems became sophisticated thinkers, outscoring their peers from a more traditional lecture-based classroom by 57% when answering challenging test questions (Kapur & Bielaczyc, 2012).
  • When students struggle to apply learning in new and challenging ways, they are more likely to probe for novel or unexpected connections, consider multiple ways to solve problems, and wrestle with the underlying differences between correct and incorrect solutions — all hallmarks of long-term retention. They also develop resilience, complex reasoning skills, and learn how to set and achieve goals while developing a healthy attitude toward making mistakes (Pasquale, 2016).


  • Communicating the importance of productive struggle for students is important. Educators can encourage students to engage in challenges with excitement when they explain and model the interplay between frustration and joy that occur when we solve tough problems. The excitement of achieving new academic heights that results from persistence cannot be overemphasized!
  • In her post, “Creating Questions to Promote Productive Struggle”, Tanya Yero has developed a process for creating open-ended tasks designed to have several correct answers and multiple pathways to solutions.
  • Learn how opening up a math task can promote a focus on growth and see how to turn closed math tasks into open tasks. Read more in the resource Give Tasks That Support Learning and Growth on the Mindset Kit website.
  • Susie Katt and Kevin Dykema from Corwin Connect offer guidance for “Planning for a Lesson with Productive Struggle”.
  • The 2020 Teach Better article entitled “Supporting Student Productive Struggle” by Matthew Joseph reviews why productive struggle is important and offers guidance on how to plan for and implement productive struggle in the classroom.
  • With “The Struggle is Real”, co-authors Shelli Casler-Failing, Taylor Norman, Elizabeth Barrow, and Amanda Glaze share ways to promote productive struggle in science, math, ELA, and social studies content areas.
  • Check out “Using Data to Promote Productive Struggle” by Dr. Cristina Compton from the Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET). In the piece, Compton describes how educators can observe student behavior and communication to inform instruction and create meaningful learning opportunities.


Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C.S. (2016). Mindset tempers effects of poverty on achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (31), 8664-8668.

Ferlazzo, L. (2015, July 8). ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching': An Interview With Zaretta Hammond. EdWeek.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. Basic Books/Hachette Book Group.

Kapur, M. & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for Productive Failure, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(1), 45-83,

Miller, M. S. (2020). The Impact of productive struggle support on student mindset in a high school technology and engineering class: A Case study [Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh]. (Unpublished)

Pasquale, M. (2016). Productive struggle in mathematics, Education Development Center, Inc. 

Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating cultures of thinking : The 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 

Salmon, A. (2008). Promoting a Culture of Thinking in the Young Child. Early Education Journal, 457-461. DOI:10.1007/s10643-007-0227-y 

University of San Diego Professional and Continuing Education. What Is Productive Struggle? [+ Strategies for Teachers].