5 Reasons the Productive Struggle Belongs in STEM

STEMscopes Staff | Published  November 23, 2022

It may be hard to watch students struggle, but facing the challenges of learning with the right attitude and seeing how missteps can lead to greater success is the greatest lesson of all. Here are the top 5 reasons why a productive struggle is beneficial to learning and in building resilience in students.




There’s a well-known saying: “Sometimes we stumble and fall, it doesn’t mean we are failures, it simply means we are moving forward.” This quote by writer and philanthropist Gift Gugu Mona aptly sums up what it’s like being a student. The road to success is never without obstacles, which is why encouraging students to stick with the struggle in order to learn is so important.

Hiccups on our path to knowledge can always become a powerful learning tool. They show that learning is a process, and so is success. This is especially apparent in the STEM disciplines where there are myriad examples of well-known scientists, developers, engineers and mathematicians who achieved great things after hitting a few dead ends first.

Here are five reasons to consider as to why a productive struggle is a positive in STEM.


1. Lasting Understanding

The very definition of productive struggle shows why it’s a positive for students. When learning isn’t easy and students have to work through tough problems or challenging ideas, the effort they expend builds useful skills and lasting understanding. Students must go beyond passive participation and really engage. Actively working through the materials makes it stick, which in the case of STEM learning, allows students to build upon their knowledge, applying what they already know to new concepts.


2. Encouraging effort and persistence

A lot of conversation happens today in schools around GRIT and how to instill it in students. GRIT combines a passion for learning with perseverance and purposeful activities. It creates a framework for lifelong learning.

GRIT allows students who have a passion for STEM to pursue complex lessons and seek success even if the road is bumpy along the way. In fact, one could potentially argue that GRIT wouldn't happen without productive struggle, since it can play a crucial role in illustrating to students why effort and persistence are necessary components to learning.


3. Strengthening student-teacher relationships

As teachers, you see students struggle at all levels. It may not be as obvious where you can insert yourself when the struggle doesn’t feel desperate, but there is an opportunity here to strengthen the relationship you have with your students.

Feedback is a huge component of a productive struggle, and effective feedback can keep students motivated to reach goals regardless of temporary setbacks. Effective feedback also gives students a chance to lean into different problem-solving strategies, trying something new without letting the struggle overtake their productivity.


4. Nurturing the ‘aha’ moment

Another benefit to feedback is it helps students think differently. It encourages them to ‘try again’ when they hit a dead end, taking ownership of their own productive struggle. This lends itself to those amazing ‘aha’ moments that can give students the greatest sense of satisfaction because they find their way out themselves.

Even though students still have to struggle to find the answer, much can be gained from an ‘aha’ moment. They can see how they reached success on their own and in what ways the struggle contributed to that final ‘aha.’


5. Learning outside the box

Speaking directly to STEM-based learning, productive struggle proves beneficial because of the role it plays during activities. Students struggle with solving a problem, say how to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks that can hold three pounds. They’ll try a few designs, and eventually, settle on what they think will work. They’ll test it and either meet the weight goal or not. If they meet it, great, they learn about engineering and physics using broader strokes than those provided by mathematical equations and the laws of science. If they didn’t meet the goal, they’ll either go back to their bridge and try to figure out what went wrong or look at the success of other designs and analyze what was structurally sound within other examples.

All of this is to say that through their productive struggle, students in this example engaged in engineering principles and scientific rules on their own terms. They immediately went into active thinking that continued through trial and error. They made miscalculations, and that was okay because they learned something and maybe came away with a new idea to try.

This way to learn uses so many important elements. There’s collaboration, real-world application, and of course that productive struggle. As they grow into adulthood, this is the project these students will talk about when their own kids ask them about what school was like; this is what will make a lasting impact.


Using the ups and downs of learning

Learning is all about making decisions. Teachers do so when they design their lesson plans. Students do it all the time– from how they find the answer to a test question to completing a group project. Sometimes these decisions are 100 percent correct, and sometimes they need a little work. It’s how we handle the work that really shows what we’re made of.







Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

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