Using Productive Failure to Drive Instruction

Photo of a Wrong Way sign.

by Kristen Mosley

As last week’s post detailed, the use of problem-solving first instructional designs has great potential over instruction-first approaches for developing students’ conceptual knowledge and knowledge transfer capacity. Importantly, the use of problem-solving first instruction is made even stronger with productive failure embedded in this design. Today’s topic is all about what productive failure is and how to incorporate it into your own instruction.

First, a quick refresher: problem-solving first instruction runs counter to the traditional teaching and learning sequence. Whereas most expect a lesson to follow the “I do, we do, you do” approach (i.e., direct instruction, facilitated discussion/practice, and then independent work), problem-solving first instruction flips this sequence; it begins with students trying to tackle a novel problem involving to-be-learned material and ends with the instructor teaching students said material.1 Additionally, this type of instruction differs from guided learning and inquiry-driven instructional designs, as the problem-solving phase is not designed to teach students the content but rather to introduce them to the content that will be learned and discussed later.2

Productive failure is a subset of problem-solving first instruction in which students tackle a novel problem based on concepts they haven’t learned. The rationale for productive failure lies in the belief that initial failure will help facilitate stronger, more memorable learning such that later failure will be minimized.3 However, to effectively implement productive failure, several important design characteristics must be considered.

The framework for productive failure is composed of two stages—a generation and exploration phase and a consolidation phase. In the first phase, students explore the novel problem, and in the second phase, they engage in formalized learning based on their explorations. Four characteristics define a successful productive failure design:

1. Activate prior knowledge: The problem chosen for the productive failure activity should provide students with multiple entry points with which they can generate and refine their solutions. In so doing, students actively partake in a key aspect of productive failure—activating prior knowledge. Even though students’ use of prior knowledge may prove erroneous, this step is a critical lever to later generating their self-awareness of knowledge gaps.4

2. Affective draw: The problem chosen for the productive failure activity should provide a relevant and engaging activity that piques students’ interests. While likely obvious, this aspect of a successful productive failure design ensures the activity is equal parts productive and failure-inducing—not just the latter.1

3. Group work: The use of group work within productive failure supports the prior two points—activation of prior knowledge and affective draw. Incorporating student collaboration, as opposed to independent problem-solving, inherently exposes students to different perspectives and experiences (i.e., different forms of prior knowledge), which ultimately strengthens their ability to create and refine possible solutions.1 As will be discussed next, the greater the depth and breadth of student solutions in the generation and exploration phase, the richer the conversation and learning in the consolidation phase.

4. Instruction driven by student solutions: Finally, after students have engaged with their peers in attempting to solve a relevant, novel problem, the solutions that they developed should then be shared and used as vehicles for facilitating their acquisition of new (and accurate!) knowledge.1 In essence, though students do the bulk of the heavy lifting in the exploration phase, they are not passive recipients of information in the consolidation phase. Instead, prior research suggests that when students are asked to elaborate on their errors their development of accurate conceptual knowledge is strengthened.1 The instructional approach, then, should balance student and teacher input, with collaboration and discussion of the material.

Finally, incorporating these productive failure design characteristics must occur within a classroom environment that is appropriately primed for the social struggle and sense-making that this type of instruction affords.1 Only then can students safely and productively engage in novel problem solving, confront their knowledge gaps, and work with their peers and instructor to build new understanding. As with most instructional innovations, the research is ever-building, and the implementation of new instructional designs should be made with great intention and consideration for the unique context and student characteristics. If you’re curious about incorporating this type of instruction in your course, know we’re happy to help.

1. Sinha, T., & Kapur, M. (2021). When Problem Solving Followed by Instruction Works: Evidence for Productive Failure. Review of Educational Research, 91(5), 761–798.

2. Loibl, K., & Rummel, N. (2014b). The impact of guidance during problem-solving prior to instruction on students’ inventions and learning outcomes. Instructional Science, 42(3), 305–326.

3. Kapur, M. (2016). Examining productive failure, productive success, unproductive failure, and unproductive success in learning. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 289–299.

4. Loibl, K., Roll, I., & Rummel, N. (2017). Towards a theory of when and how problem solving followed by instruction supports learning. Educational Psychology Review29(4), 693–715.

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