August 2, 2021

Understanding and Using Productive Struggle in the Classroom

Written by Catherine Conner, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Candidate, English.  

Resilience. Perseverance. Grit. These are qualities often associated with academic rigor and success. However, the paths to helping students develop these qualities are not always clear.  Here I will explore how using productive struggle in the classroom can help students develop and strengthen these traits, and how the role of teacher as “warm demander” can infuse empathy into an academically rigorous class environment.  

Productive Struggle 

It’s important to understand the concept of “productive struggle,” which is often applied to STEM classrooms. In essence, it’s the idea that students engage in effortful practice to build their skills and move them beyond passive learning.1 Further, giving students the space to work through an issue or problem and arrive at a solution on their own helps them develop persistence and resilience as they pursue that solution and reach their learning goal.2 Perhaps Marian Pasquale, Senior Research Scientist and middle school science specialist, captures it best: 

“As students engage with a task, they must be mindful about the strategy they employ and assess whether it is productive. When they find they are at a dead end, they must be willing to abandon one strategy for another. When students labor and struggle but continue to try to make sense of a problem, they are engaging in productive struggle.”3 

Although productive struggle is used successfully in STEM environments, its foundational principles can be used in any classroom to engage students in the learning process.  

It is critical to remember that productive struggle is not based on a “sink or swim” approach or adding more tasks or assignments; it also does not mean that academic standards or rigor need compromise. Sometimes it is simply offering flexibility when covering new material or asking students to describe the steps of a process. Productive struggle relies on guidance and intentionality in course design and the classroom environment, and it can help a teacher become a “warm demander.”  


The word “rigor” is sometimes misunderstood, misused, or misapplied. Traditional dictionary definitions include: “harsh inflexibility,” “the quality of being unyielding,” “severity of life,” “a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable, especially extremity of cold (e.g., the rigors of a New England winter)” as well as synonyms such as “severity,” “strictness,” and “austerity.”  

With these definitions in mind, we can reconsider how we use rigor in the classroom in new ways. High expectations and academic standards will always play a key role in education, but a focus on transparency (i.e., clear goals, procedures, steps) and guidance in helping students pinpoint areas of struggle or predicted struggle encourages them to think about their own processes and strategies. Adding “safety nets” or flexibility for completion of assignments or projects also helps students engage in problem-solving when they encounter a challenging assignment or struggle to complete an assignment. For instance, a request for a deadline extension can be a short write-up about the progress the student has made thus far and next steps for completion. Also, support and flexibility in the classroom builds students’ trust in their teachers, other students, and for themselves. 

Warm Demander 

A “warm demander” is a teacher who holds students to high standards but supports them throughout the process of meetings those standards. There are a few key approaches to being a warm demander: 1) Believe in students’ potential by understanding the cultural strengths and role models of students’ communities and tapping; 3)  into their prior knowledge; 2) Build trust by listening to students and learning who they are and what matters to them; 3) Teach self-discipline by normalizing hard work and effort that leads to success and avoid micromanaging or punishing students; 4) Be strict about things that matter, but within established boundaries; 5)Embrace failure to foster a growth mindset in students and help them understand that real learning can come through failure.  

Supporting Students 

Here are some ways to support students through productive struggle: 

  • Acknowledge perseverance and effort in reasoning and sense making through process-oriented tasks or projects rather than right/wrong outcomes 
  • Establish noncompetitive learning environments using process-oriented activities and assessments 
  • Position students as “author” of instruction by offering choices in assignments or activities (UDL) 
  • Foster learning from mistakes to build self-efficacy, resiliency – adopt a “no failure” attitude
  • Encourage curiosity and risk-taking through exploration 
  • Honor students’ prior or “personal” knowledge to create meaningfulness 

Overall, to use productive struggle in the classroom or become a warm demander, consider modifications or additions to existing course design or teaching strategies rather than a wholesale redesign of a course. Sometimes involving students in the design or modification of a task or project not only helps them understand the process, but it also demonstrates the benefits of collaboration and working toward a common goal. In addition, asking them to think about equity and inclusivity fosters empathy and reiterates the belief that academic achievement is possible for all students.