The Importance of Productive Struggle in the Mathematics Classroom

Math LearningThe Importance of Productive Struggle in the Mathematics Classroom

October 6, 2021

'Productive struggle” is the process of effortful learning that empowers students to attempt solving a new math problem using logic and prior knowledge before being explicitly taught a procedure. According to the National Council of Mathematics Teachers’ Principles to Actions, productive struggle is an essential part of math learning: “Effective teaching of mathematics consistently provides students, individually and collectively, with opportunities and supports to engage in productive struggle as they grapple with mathematical ideas and relationships.” 

Struggling is neurologically essential for students, and teaching students that struggling is part of learning math can build grit, creativity, and authentic engagement. 

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The Importance of Embracing Productive Struggle in Math Classrooms 

The benefits of productive struggle in math are numerous. Encouraging students to embrace productive struggle... 

  • Builds conceptual understanding. When students engage with rich, real-world tasks, they have to rely on their own reasoning and background knowledge rather than mimicking a teacher-led procedure. This messy process of sense-making builds conceptual understanding, which is an essential aspect of rigor in math learning.
  • Creates a student-centered environment. Productive struggle flips the usual script of teachers demonstrating a skill and students practicing it; instead, students actually begin with independent or peer work. This approach can be more engaging, and leading with the student-led portion of a lesson ensures it does not get cut if class time runs out. 
  • Improves teacher feedback. While students engage in solving a new kind of problem, teachers can circulate and gather data on misconceptions and deliver just-in-time supports. When the class eventually comes together as a whole-group, teachers can then ground their instruction in a more precise idea of students’ understanding. 

How Can Teachers Create a Culture of Productive Struggle? 

Research points to a few best practices for encouraging students to embrace productive struggle: 

  1. Probing questions and insisting on sense-making - Teachers can support productive struggle by asking questions that encourage students to reflect on their learning. According to mathematics education researcher Hiroko Warshauer, “teacher responses such as ‘Tell me what you mean’ and ‘Talk about it some more’ or the insistence on sense-making with ‘Why is that?’ provide opportunities for students to elaborate on what they understand and to clarify the source of their struggles.”
  2. Peer collaboration - When a student is stuck, instead of swooping in with the answer, teachers can encourage them to check-in with a peer. Allowing students to collaborate and realize they are all struggling together relieves the discomfort of a “wrong answer” and instead normalizes trial and error as well as celebrates growth mindset.

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  1. Reading the room - Creating a culture of productive struggle requires monitoring and responding to students’ needs. For example, the class needs to move at an appropriate tempo that doesn’t rush the problem-solving process or necessitate shortcuts. Giving students enough time communicates that the process is more important than finding the answer. However, if most of the class is veering into frustration and unproductive struggle, it is good to have scaffolded questions and supports at the ready.

How Does Yup Help Students Embrace Productive Struggle? 

Yup’s tutoring model is designed to support and honor the importance of productive struggle. When a student is stuck on a problem and logs into Yup, they receive guidance from a tutor, but the tutor never tells the student the answer, keeping the focus on the learning process instead. Tutors provide students with feedback as they work so they can correct their own thinking, and they encourage students by praising perseverance and thinking over answer-getting. 

In addition, the mathematical proficiency for Yup tutors is such that they are adept at seeing and valuing creative problem-solving processes (as opposed to believing that there is one approach), allowing students to experiment with and evaluate different strategies. 

If you are interested in the ways Yup can be used inside and outside the classroom to facilitate productive struggle, check out our Yup for teachers or administrators pages, or contact partnerships@yup.com to learn more about bringing Yup to your school or district.


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