Is letting your students struggle a struggle? How to purposefully promote productive struggle and live to tell the tale

As teachers, we want to make sure our students understand and find success in math class. That’s our job, right?

Sometimes these efforts might lead to: “How can I make this easy for my students to understand?”

While a good intention, this sort of thinking could actually shortchange your students’ understanding.

That’s where productive struggle comes into play: this idea that students need to work hard at reasoning through problems in order to learn something new. This is different from the expectation that the teacher and student work through an example together, and then that student struggles to replicate on their own what they’ve just done with the teacher.

Allowing students to productively struggle means that we, as teachers, have to step back and let students mess around with problems themselves, possibly even allowing them to (gulp) fail a bit in the process.

So what makes encouraging productive struggle so difficult?

We want to help our students and we have a finite amount of time to help them, which combined makes promoting productive struggle really difficult.

So let’s break down each of these issues.


We want to help.

Many of us equate helping to giving hints and reminders or even walking through a step-by-step example. But providing help that promotes productive struggle requires that the thinking and reasoning stay with the student.

What could you say to a student to encourage this?

  • Tell me what it is you’re trying to figure out.
  • Walk me through what you’ve done so far.
  • What would you do if you knew what to do?

The last one isn’t a joke.

When students ask for help, they often just want to hear the teacher’s ideas to see if those ideas match the student’s own. They’re looking for validation.

Many students I’ve directed that question to say something like, “Well, I would subtract.” So then I’d say, “Ok, do that and let me know how it works out.”

And then they try it! It’s pretty astonishing how well and how often that question works.

We have a finite amount of time.

Research shows that students do better on test questions that check concepts they haven’t been explicitly taught how to do when those students have a disposition toward productive struggle.

Once they’re in the habit of getting started on a problem themselves, they’re simply better at figuring the rest of it out. But sometimes, we as teachers just have to teach something. We might agonize knowing that we would rather have students mess around with an idea, but the clock is ticking.

So why spend the time and energy to make productive struggle happen in your classroom? Because as soon as your class is running on struggle, students actually learn, and learn to learn faster, saving you time in the long run.

Two ways to maximize your class’ time in the struggle zone:

  • Introduce classroom routines that promote struggle. This could be sharing specifically how to work in groups, how to share and discuss work, or anything else that will strike the students as distinct from you just showing examples and then assigning practice problems.
  • Find and maximize connections among topics. When students are given a task they can begin by choosing their own approach, a lot of connections can start to build. You can leverage these connections both to strengthen students’ understanding of previous concepts and to introduce new concepts.

But more importantly than following any of this advice: don’t get discouraged in your struggle to promote productive struggle. There’s a reason we call it productive “struggle” in the first place. It’s a different learning process than what students and teachers are used to, but surmounting the struggle to let our students struggle pays off in leaps and bounds (and learning)!


Belinda Thompson is a Math Instruction Expert at LearnZillion. If it were socially acceptable (and who says it isn’t?), she’d eat breakfast foods for every meal.

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