Productive failure: Should you ever let learners sink or swim?
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Productive failure: Should you ever let learners sink or swim?

Training professionals typically aim to create learning experiences that are positive and successful for learners. And that’s often how their efforts are evaluated: High marks from users means the training was effective.

But it turns out that feel-good training could be less effective than training that makes learners feel like failures.

A recent study highlights a failure-based approach to learning that practically eliminates instruction altogether. It simply throws learners in the deep end and asks them to figure things out for themselves.

They fail at first, of course. But that turns out to be a good thing – because they end up performing 10% better than learners who receive traditional instruction.

The research
Researchers divided math students into two groups. Each group participated in seven separate learning sessions.

The control group received a traditional learning experience – a lecture with instructor-led examples, followed by in-class and at-home practice.

Another group – the “productive failure” group – was given difficult problems to solve without any instruction or guidance.

Not only were these students left in the dark, but researchers also wrote the problems in an intentionally confusing style, causing learners to struggle even more.

Divided into small teams, the learners attempted to solve the problems together as best they could. They failed over and over again, but the researchers told them to keep at it.

In the last session, the struggling group finally received a lecture from the instructor that revealed and reviewed all of the key concepts needed to solve the problems.

The results
On a follow-up test, the productive-failure group scored 10% higher than the traditional instruction group.

What’s more, they scored 23% higher on problems that were confusing or poorly worded, like the ones from their practice sessions.

The study reinforced findings from other research, which has found that “desirable difficulties” make people better learners.

Did better in novel situations too
What the researchers did next was even more interesting: They conducted a second post-test on an advanced math topic. But this time, neither group got any teaching on the topic. They simply had to puzzle out a solution as best they could.

Since this was all-new material, you’d think that both groups would be starting from the same point and perform about the same.

But it didn’t work out that way. Half of the “productive failure” group passed the test, compared with only 21% of the control group.

Why did failure work?
So why did early failure ultimately result in more success?

Researchers offer several explanations. The sink-or-swim learners had to search their prior knowledge for a solution. And as they struggled to apply this knowledge to the problem at hand, they had to think deeply about the nature of the problem.

When the students finally got the explanation, their minds were already primed to receive it and connect it with their previous knowledge.

The experience also enhanced their persistence, an important trait when learning complex concepts that require behavior change.

That’s why the failure group did better on the novel topic: They were more willing to plug away, even in the absence of any instruction, so more of them figured out the solution on their own.

While you may not want to subject your learners to sink-or-swim training sessions, there are less extreme ways of applying this research.

  1. Before showing trainees how to approach a difficult problem, ask them how they would do it. Let them struggle a little to find a solution before showing them the right way.
  2. Have learners explain how they will apply a new skill. It will cause them to think deeply about their existing behavior and help them identify the key concepts they need to put into action in order to improve.
  3. Ask learners to compare and contrast a good approach and a bad approach to a problem. They will need to consider the steps of both approaches and figure out what is effective and what leads to failure.

Sources: Kapur, M. (2010). Productive failure in mathematical problem solving. Instructional Science, 38(6), 523-550.
Kapur, M. and Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for productive failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(1), 45-83.

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