Who’s doing all the work? Who’s having all the fun?

Part 1: Five steps to incorporating productive failure into your course

Several years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a talk by Barb Stengel, Professor of the Practice in Vanderbilt’s Teaching and Learning Department.  She had a mantra that she repeated throughout the talk to frame her comments: “Who’s doing all the work? Who’s having all the fun?”

Those two sentences have stuck with me. They made me think about how much I love to struggle with puzzles and problems, and how much joy I get from creating order from chaos when I’m learning a new subject. Barb’s point was that we all feel like that: that the work of learning is what brings the joy of learning. And she wanted us to see that this applies to our students too.

 These sentences have resonated with me for six (!) years, and every faculty member I’ve shared them with has had a visible reaction: a pause, a nod, a smile. So I think it’s worth exploring different ways to bring the joy of intellectual work to our undergraduate classes, starting with this post about productive failure.

Productive failure is a teaching approach that deliberately asks students to solve problems that they are not yet prepared to solve—leading to “failure” in the short term—as preparation for direct instruction. During direct instruction, students’ imperfect solutions are used as tools to highlight key features of more expert solutions. The approach appears to help students understand deep features of the problems and the corresponding solutions, thus making the initial failure productive. As the name suggests, a key feature of this approach is the initial failure—students are encouraged to explore many different possible solutions to a complex, ill-defined problem, and the instructor doesn’t guide them toward important elements or right answers at this point. [In a later post, we’ll consider problem-based learning, which uses the same sort of problems but asks the instructor to guide students in their problem-solving toward an initial “productive success.”]

The productive failure approach was first described by Manu Kapur, who has shown that it improves students’ ability to solve both straightforward and complex problems when compared to more typical direct teaching approaches (i.e., instruction followed by problem solving). Importantly, Kapur and colleagues have shown that the approach improves students’ conceptual insight without harming procedural fluency. The approach has been examined mostly in middle and high school classes and math-related concepts, although a few studies have looked at other groups (masters’ students; biology undergrads).  

How does productive failure work? As students work in groups to explore potential solutions to complex problems, they activate prior knowledge and identify knowledge gaps. Groups then present their solutions to the class, allowing them to elaborate on the important features of their solutions. As more groups present and the instructor guides comparisons, students begin to identify critical concept features, and this understanding is solidified by direct instruction that highlights those deep features and helps students understand how experts use them to develop solutions.

There have been few attempts to translate the productive failure approach to non-mathematical concepts, and relatively few attempts to use it in college classes. And there are some reasons to think that our adult students might resist the feelings of incompetence that the initial failure could generate. It is an approach worth exploring, however, if your students struggle to identify the deep features of a particular concept or have a hard time translating concepts in different contexts. If you want to explore, try doing the following:

  1. Find or develop a complex scenario describing a problem. Make sure that the key features you want students to see are embedded with other features that might point students in different directions.
  2. Ask students to tackle the problem in small groups, exploring as many solutions as possible in the time you allot. Assure them that they do not have to arrive at a correct solution, just have a potential (if incomplete or imperfect) solution to present. The more potential solutions they explore, the better.
  3. Have student groups present their solutions, explaining why they chose the approach they did.
  4. As students present, encourage them to compare the different solutions. Highlight important elements when they appear.
  5. Give a short lecture on an expert solution to the problem, noting similarities and differences with the student solutions.

I’d love to hear your experiences with your version of productive failure. How do your students respond? Do they feel like they are doing all the work and having all the fun? Do they exhibit greater understanding and ability to use their knowledge? Please share in the comments below. 

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