When Struggle Helps You Learn: The Mechanisms Behind Productive Failure

Rédaction Blog

5 years ago

Learning Innovation


Here is the first in our new series of articles focused on learning research and innovation, in association with the EPFL’s (Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne, Switzerland) LEARN Center.

The author of this contribution is Dr Jessica Dehler Zufferey, Executive Director at the Center for Learning Sciences (LEARN) at the EPFL, and a former R&D director at Coorpacademy.

Innovation in Learning Science and Educational Technologies are at the top of our agenda at Coorpacademy – as we see them as critical to our mission to continuously improve the learning experience on our platform, making it even more personalized, flexible and enjoyable for learners.

Can the best learning only happen in a culture where errors are not just accepted but are seen as valuable occasions to improve skills?

When learning a new topic on the Coorpacademy platform, learners always have the choice to engage with questions first or to see the learning material first.

Intuitively one would expect that someone with high prior knowledge on the topic should start with questions, while someone with no or low prior knowledge should start with the instructional content before going on to answering questions. But is this actually true? Research on a method called ‘Productive Failure’ arrives at the opposite conclusion.

How does it work?

Initially developed in Singapore by Manu Kapur, now professor at ETH Zurich, and now established worldwide, Productive Failure emphasises the positive nature of the learner challenge. When learning new content, learners benefit from an initial phase of creative and conceptual brainstorming before turning towards the content, information, and explanation. If you want to learn something about data science, for example, you should first play with some data, invent some measures you could apply, and experiment with what you can come up with. The quality of the ideas you generate is not that important since even wrong ideas can create the productive failure effect. For Kapur, productive failure ‘is the preparation for learning’, not the learning per se.

What impact does it have?

Literature on the approach shows that not only will your conceptual understanding be better if you ‘fail first’, but your interest and motivation for the topic will be increased. A valuable side effect is also to train persistence. The number of ideas generated is also higher when failing first, so the method also stimulates creativity.

Why does it work?

The cognitive learning mechanisms behind the productive failure effect are actually quite well understood. First, any cognitive activation is beneficial for learning as it puts the brain in ‘active mode’. Second, all learning is situated and by developing their own ideas learners are creating the context in which to situate any upcoming learning. Third, by developing ideas before the instructional part, learners create a feeling for the types of problems that are similar so they are more likely to apply the to be learned content in future situations, and so improve performance as a result of learning.

What does it mean for you as a lifelong learner?

Whenever you start learning a new subject, do not go straight towards the instructional content in the belief that you need to begin by getting some basic understanding. Rather, profit from this initial ‘naïve’ phase and develop various ideas, right or wrong – and only then, once engaged, turn towards the content and enjoy learning.

Author first article Learning Research and Innovation

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