By Cathy Moore
“You’re setting them up to fail!” You’ve probably heard this if you’ve proposed starting with an activity instead of first providing instruction.
“Everyone knows” that people should be carefully shown how to do something and only then allowed to practice doing it. If you just throw them in the deep end, frustration and cognitive overload and squashed self-esteem will supposedly inhibit their learning.
However, several studies suggest that when we first challenge learners and then give them instruction, we can improve their ability to apply and extend their new knowledge. They could more effectively apply what they’ve learned to their jobs and to new situations.
In these and similar studies, students with some knowledge of a discipline were given a problem without first being told how to solve it. They floundered, usually in groups, and then their solutions were examined and they were taught the correct process.
These “productive failure” groups were slightly weaker at applying the new process than were the “direct instruction” groups who were first taught what to do. But the former flounderers were clearly better at applying what they learned to other situations and at developing additional models that they hadn’t been taught.
It’s not clear how much support is best during the initial challenge. Collaboration with other learners seems to help, so in lonely, asynchronous elearning you’ll want to provide at least some scaffolding, such as hints or questions that guide learners to the correct steps to take. If I were queen, this scaffolding would be optional, it wouldn’t teach the content, and it would be provided in the activity, not as pre-activity instruction.
Like most research in instruction, these studies were done on elementary and university students, not adults in the working world. But in contrast to many studies, the researchers went beyond assessing the correct regurgitation of facts and looked at how well learners applied and extended their knowledge, which is our goal in business training.
Some papers are available as full text:
- Productive failure in learning from generation and invention activities — an overview of four studies
- Productive failure in mathematical problem solving
- Productive failure: A hidden efficacy of seemingly unproductive production
When you think about the lessons you’ve learned, which are the most memorable — the ones in which someone first taught you everything you needed to know, or the ones in which you at first floundered and even failed?
Photo by anuarsalleh