What Is a Productive Struggle in Math and Why Is It Beneficial for Students

LiveBoard Staff
24 April 2022
LiveBoard Staff

As a Math teacher, when you see your students struggling with specific problems, it might become discomforting for you. By reflex, you want to ‘rescue’ them and, at times, give them the right solution straight away. But what if the right type of struggle can be more productive than you think? If properly managed, productive struggle in Math can greatly strengthen the base of students’ knowledge and help them learn the material better. 

What is Productive Struggle in Math and Why It Is Important in Learning Math

The process of productive struggle develops grit, logic, and creative problem-solving skills through effortful learning. You learn all the hooks and nooks of the streets of your town better if you get lost in it once (not a recommendation). Similarly, such a struggle when you have to find a solution to a Math problem, basing all your efforts on logic and prior knowledge, can help you grasp Math concepts and glue them to your mind. Absorbing the very idea of the path you’ve walked to figure out a solution can prove much more productive than reading, re-reading, writing down, and repeating equations to memorize and understand them. It occurs when students are given tasks beyond their current level of understanding and have to think creatively, apply all their previous knowledge, and find ways through which they can solve the problem at hand. This kind of struggle helps students consolidate their learning and understand the Math concepts better.

As put in Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, “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.” Neurologically struggling is of much importance for students’ brain development, and teaching students that productive struggle is an essential learning path that they have to undertake in their journey is one key to developing authenticity and creative engagement with Math.

Tired student during an online math class

How To Implement Productive Struggle as a Math Teacher

So how can you properly implement productive struggle in your classroom as a math teacher? Firstly, struggling productively does not mean taking on overly challenging tasks and can cause frustration. Instead, you want to avoid it. Students shall engage in activities that motivate them to apply their knowledge, creative thinking, and logic to find a carefully considered solution. That also entails eliminating new and advanced problems that students have never touched. Here are a few things you can start with to create a productive struggle embracing culture within the classroom.

1. Start With Being Supportive of their Struggles

You can give them a few problems to work on that are just out of their comfort zone to learn how to take productive steps towards solving them. The productive struggle should also be scaffolded and monitored. When you assign tasks, also provide guidance and support so students know what resources they can use and where they can find help. Additionally, it would be best if you gave feedback to students on their progress and how they are doing with productive struggle so they can reflect on their learning.

2. Encourage Them to Make Sense of the Problems

Asking problem-solving questions and, thus, encouraging them to make sense of the assigned tasks would be a great step towards helping students embrace productive struggling. You should guide them to finding the answer and let them find it on their own. Questions like “talk about what you meant by *this*,” or encouraging them to talk about their reasoning behind their steps a bit more in detail, will give students opportunities to elaborate more on what they have grasped and absorbed. It will help them understand the concepts better, and you, too, as their teacher, to understand them more and take a better approach. 

3. Promote Collaboration With Peers

When students have a hard time with their assigned problems, providing them with the answers straight away is not the approach you should consider. Instead, another helpful method would be letting them discuss it with their classmates. Collaborating with their equals and realizing that they are not alone in their struggles helps relieve a huge chunk of stress and panic and eliminates the frustration of coming to a wrong answer. This way, you would help them also realize that the way of trial and error is not unacceptable and that they should not be scared of it.

4. Implement Productive Struggle with LiveBoard

LiveBoard might be the missing piece in your quest to further implement productive struggle in your digital classroom. When tutoring online, with LiveBoard, you can have a shared collaborative board where students can annotate in real-time. This way, you will be able to provide instant feedback and boost students’ problem-solving skills.

Conclusion

Productive struggle is an important part of learning math. It helps students learn how to problem solve and develop a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. Teachers can support productive struggle in their classrooms by providing opportunities for students to wrestle with problems, questioning them about their thinking, and helping them find mistakes. Struggling in math can lead to better understanding and mastery of concepts. Math should not be taught in a way that spoon-feeds students all of the steps they need to take to arrive at an answer. When this happens, students do not have the opportunity to wrestle with the material independently and may become dependent on teachers for every step along the way. This type of instruction also robs students of the satisfaction that comes with conquering a problem through independent effort. 

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