4 Strategies I Use to Guide Students Toward Productive Struggle

by | 07.19.23

Katie Perez is an elementary educator in San Marcos, TX. Follow her on Twitter @KatieP1120.

I’ll bet some of my fellow teachers are pretty familiar with this scenario: Students bump into a topic or task they haven’t mastered yet and – while they might give it a lot of time and energy – they still get stuck. The longer they’re stuck, the more likely they are to feel like they’re always going to be stuck. Over time, their sense of motivation, curiosity and willingness to try future tasks starts diminishing. That’s why I established the following 4 strategies to interrupt that process and help my students redirect themselves back to what they can do before that stuck feeling creeps in. 

1. Define Productive Struggle

It’s so important to me that my students understand the difference between persevering in the face of a challenge and “spinning their wheels” when they’re stuck. That’s why one strategy I rely on is creating an anchor chart with my students that defines productive struggle. That way, students can recognize what it looks like, what it feels like and how different it is from the stuck feeling that can zap their motivation away.

In all of my classes we take the time to discuss what “productive” means and what “struggle” means. From there, we put the two together to make a new definition. No discussion is exactly the same, but we always arrive at something like this: Productive struggle is working hard toward a goal, and – when we hit a challenge – using all our resources we have available to keep going and not give up. We talk about the importance of persistence and that, even if a task is difficult, we can still feel excited, determined and inspired as we look for solutions and keep learning. Our discussion, and the reminders on our anchor chart, help students see that the whole learning journey is important, not just the answer to the problem in front of them. They start to see that the choices they make, how they work with their peers, and how they take care of themselves, their thoughts and their feelings as they work through these challenges are all part of their growth.

2. Reflect, Refine, Repeat

Another practice I use to help build students’ ability to recognize and steer themselves back to a place of productive struggle is called Reflect, Refine, Repeat.  After every assessment, we reflect on what went well, identify something that didn’t go so well that we want to refine for next time and use that plan moving forward to repeat our successes and keep on improving. The core idea is to hone in on what students can do to support their own success. If their success comes down to a tool or strategy that is within their control, then students (and their peers) can repeat it! I’ve found that this practice helps build students’ confidence across the board, whether or not they’ve met their immediate goals.

At first, some students might attribute their success to simply being smart. Others might say that they did well because they had good luck. But I always think about what could happen on a day when they feel “unlucky” or “not smart” – or what their peers might think if they didn’t get the same result as their “lucky” classmate. Feeling lucky and smart can seem out of reach for many students, especially if they have had negative and/or unsuccessful experiences in the past, because they believe those are traits people are born with, not acquired. That’s why it’s so important to guide students’ attention toward things they can control, so that they can take charge of those steps and continue to see that their own efforts are driving their success and growth. 

3. Visualize Progress & Roadblocks

The reflect, refine, repeat process also inspired me to help students track their own data! I have one-on-one conversations with every student before each assessment, so they can set their own goals, measure their own progress and decide what they want to work toward and how. It’s really up to each of them to decide their own goals, and I’ll take notice of whatever sounds most exciting to them! That might sound like, “I want to get in the yellow!” or “I want to move up three steps!” But I always bring our conversation back to reflecting on where they started, what steps they’ve been taking to reach their goals and what they can do that’s within their control to keep heading toward their goals. We reconvene after their assessment to determine if they met their goal, how they did it (tools, strategies, resources) and how they feel about it.

4. Support Lots of Little Wins

I find that seeing and experiencing success is so crucial for sustaining productive struggle over time. But I think a lot of received wisdom around success boils down to building tolerance for failure, and picking yourself up 100 times so you can get to one big win. So I like to do the opposite: Providing a hundred little chances for students to feel successful from the very beginning. These “mastery experiences” increase their self-efficacy, their willingness to take risks and their motivation. Then, when they hit a bigger challenge, they’ve practiced the strategies and built the strong sense of self-efficacy they need to redirect their own experience, practice productive struggle and remain confident in their ability to see results. Instead of fighting to stop the negative from overwhelming the positive, they can actually feel the positive overshadow the negative! Sometimes the students will say, “Hey, I notice something about this problem that is like another problem I solved.” Recognizing that they have been successful on problems like this before gives them an extra boost of motivation to keep trying.

I see this every year with my fourth graders when we’re introducing fractions. I always start with the easiest problems I can think of. We keep doing problems like that together while practicing our strategies, and by the end of the first day the group is feeling pretty good about fractions! With that success momentum, we can start tackling fractions that are a little more complex – always with the reminder to use what we know now to figure out what we don’t know yet. The most important thing is that they continue to see success and build a sense of self-trust and trust in their strategies. 

When we get to more challenging problems, I guide students to turn their mistakes into little wins, too. That might mean celebrating the moment that they realize they’ve made a mistake, and acknowledging that shows understanding! It might mean thanking them for showing their work to the class and contributing to our shared learning. It might mean an opportunity to strengthen our classroom culture, by asking everyone to chime in if they’ve made the same mistake at any point in that unit so we can normalize our mistakes together. The more I can guide our class to meet mistakes with gratitude, the more students start to see them as assets to their own learning and to their peers. I’m so excited to see students take to the idea of productive struggle, because I know it’s going to support them in every area of their lives. Like with any goal, the moment of achievement is wonderful. But my hope is that they build a strong sense of self-efficacy, trust in their skills and problem-solving power will serve them for years to come.

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