The Problem with Teaching Through “Productive Struggle”

by Justin Skycak on

Beginners benefit more from direct instruction.

Is productive struggle a valid approach to teaching? Not according to research in cognitive science. For students (not experts), empirical results point in the opposite direction.

One key empirical result is the expertise reversal effect, a well-known phenomenon that instructional techniques that promote the most learning in experts, promote the least learning in beginners, and vice versa.

It’s true that many highly skilled professionals spend a lot of time solving open-ended problems, and in the process, discovering new knowledge as opposed to obtaining it through direct instruction. But I don’t think this means beginners should do the same. The expertise reversal effect suggests the opposite – that beginners (i.e., students) learn most effectively through direct instruction.

Here are some quotes elaborating on why beginners benefit more from direct instruction.

  • "First, a learner who is having difficulty with many of the components can easily be overwhelmed by the processing demands of the complex task. Second, to the extent that many components are well mastered, the student will waste a great deal of time repeating those mastered components to get an opportunity to practice the few components that need additional practice.

    A large body of research in psychology shows that part training is often more effective when the part component is independent, or nearly so, of the larger task. ... Practicing one's skills periodically in full context is important to motivation and to learning to practice, but not a reason to make this the principal mechanism of learning." -- Anderson, Reder, & Simon (1998) in Radical Constructivism and Cognitive Psychology
  • "These two facts -- that working memory is very limited when dealing with novel information, but that it is not limited when dealing with organized information stored in long-term memory -- explain why partially or minimally guided instruction typically is ineffective for novices, but can be effective for experts. When given a problem to solve, novices' only resource is their very constrained working memory. But experts have both their working memory and all the relevant knowledge and skill stored in long-term memory." -- Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller (2012) in Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction

And some other references:


Intuitively, too: in an hour-long session, you’re going to make a lot more progress by solving 30 problems that each take 2 minutes given your current level of knowledge, than by attempting a single challenge problem that you struggle with for an hour. (This assumes those 30 problems are grouped into minimal effective doses, well-scaffolded & increasing in difficulty, across a variety of topics at the edge of your knowledge profile.)

To be clear, I’m not claiming that “challenge problems” are bad – I’m just saying that they’re not a good use of time until you’ve developed the foundational skills that are necessary to grapple with those problems in a productive and timely fashion.