From Puzzles to Physics: How to Engage Students in Productive Struggle

This blog attempts to summarize all of the discussions, readings, musings, and beautiful time that we spent together during this learning community about Productive Struggle.

During this year, at least for me (Paola Rodriguez Hidalgo), this LC has opened more questions than it has resolved (which is a fantastic thing)! We learned how deep this topic runs, how productive struggle occurs across disciplines (although we focused at times on issues students might have with mathematical problems), and how many different aspects are involved for us to learn to support students:

How can we create the right space, physically and mentally, for students to struggle?

  • Make connections to previous situations where students have gone through productive struggle and enjoyed it. For example, we looked at gaming. As we discussed in our previous blog, many students love playing games. There is a natural productive struggle there. As someone who has played Halo two times and never returned, I might have given up too fast and not dealt with productive struggle correctly. 🙂 But I have devoted more hours than I want to admit completing puzzles… What keeps me pushing, classifying pieces, analyzing the colors, trying and trying? Who knows, probably the challenge. How can we help students see learning as this cool challenge that requires struggling as they have already done in other aspects of their life?

Also, real-world (vs magical academic) experiences are more enticing for students (since it addresses the question, why am I doing this?); show how this productive struggle mimics the way they will attack new problems in their future jobs. Life is messy, but students might not be used to the messiness yet. Help them get used to it.

  • Find the right level of challenge: we need to find the sweet spot (which could be difficult in large courses): if students are lost, they won’t even attempt the struggle. We observed that in our BPHYS 121 course. Activities need to be accessible for everyone, and creating this sweet spot requires us to know exactly what the students know so we create a goldilocks jump: not too big, not too small. We need to know our students: for example, academic help-seeking behaviors mayt be lacking among our students, including our first gen students.. Is asking for help already a struggle for some of them, productive or not?
  • Adapt to each situation: we realized that different approaches might need to be taken in different spaces such as the classroom, tutoring center, and office hours.. We discussed the basics of the process, but some modifications might be necessary to enrich each of these spaces with meaningful experiences. Members of our team have submitted an IRB application to foster and analyze productive struggle in tutoring situations.

What keeps the students pushing through during productive struggle?

  • Motivation: We realize this LC had some synergy with the student motivation LC. If students are not motivated (intrinsically? externally? – let me go back to this below) they will give up at the first sign of trouble. Students have a limited amount of time, and while we all would like our students to be devoting an infinite number of hours to their learning, students probably see the struggle outside of class as a sinkhole of their limited time (let’s remember many of our students have obligations outside of school for ~30 hrs a week). One option to overcome this obstacle is to devote class time to activities where productive struggle happens, combining the learning outcomes into an experience that produces struggle. For example, Robin Agnotti designs activities to create an environment in the classroom where supported productive struggle happens naturally in group work. She shared with the group some examples from a mathematical modeling workshop in Berkeley that we plan on dissecting in the near future, to extract how they promote productive struggle and how we can develop new ones.

In a perfect world, students will all have a strong intrinsic motivation to learn, but our current world requires students to obtain a degree for an entry level job. In that sense, unfortunately, we might be the last required academic gate, as high-school used to be. With lower intrinsic motivators (unless we create those!), we are relying on the external ones. One member of our group coined the sentence, “Grades are a buzzkill to productive struggle.” Can students be happy with a very-well earned B or C if they learned a lot in the process and achieved learning milestones? Can we motivate students to devote time outside of class if there is not an external motivator like a grade? One option would be to ask students to identify one goal they want to accomplish and that will require them to struggle and create a reflective space where students can check through the quarter to show how they are reaching their goal.

  • Show excitement about mistakes: show how learning occurs through making mistakes. For example, get excited about showing the incorrect path down a problem to show why that doesn’t work. Follow suggestions from students and explore paths that won’t lead to the right answer right away. Reinforce that we do not solve problems in the first try, and that a lot of learning occurs through trying.
  • Support –  the emotional component of productive struggle: how can we deal with the difficult feelings of failure that productive struggle creates, especially for young students that might be dealing with their first walls of learning? We might have to spell it out and provide easy access for students to reach us when they are in the midst of desperation and want to quit. While in class, we need to help our students to work collaboratively in groups, learning to support each other to struggle without being made to feel inferior in the process.

The aftermath (pun intended!)

With more questions than answers, and a bag of things to explore in the new academic year, we reached the end of this LC. I, for one, am looking forward to putting into practice everything discussed above in my future classes, knowing that a wonderful group of colleagues will be around me to support me in these efforts.

Happy summer everyone!

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