February 10, 2021
The Struggle is Real (and Productive)

Posted in: Aha! Blog > Eureka Math Blog > Implementation Support > The Struggle is Real (and Productive)

When your students struggle, your instinct may be to jump in and help them. That’s natural. You care about your students, and you don’t want to see them struggle. But struggle—productive struggle—is exactly what students need. Think about other skills students learn: how to ride a bicycle, how to shoot a free throw, how to play a violin. Productive struggle seems natural when you’re learning those things. You fall, miss shots, and play wrong notes. But we don’t discourage the struggle in those activities because we know it leads to learning. Let’s think about learning math the same way.

Productive struggle is the sweet spot of learning.

You’ll come to recognize productive struggle as that point where students are challenged but not overwhelmed. They are pushing at the edge of their understanding where they have access to the problems in front of them and can try something to work on them. They may make mistakes and try different strategies, but they are engaged with the work and can persevere. As you plan and teach your lessons, think about how you can create opportunities for students to participate in the process of productive struggle.

Use Eureka Math® to support productive struggle.

The structure of Eureka Math lessons helps you support productive struggle. For example, Problem Sets in all grades, Kindergarten through Precalculus, are purposely designed to progress from simple to more complex problems. Identify the problems that provide opportunities for productive struggle by completing the Problem Sets yourself. Assign those problems to your students. It’s okay to assign different problems to different students to make sure each one is challenged.

The following Eureka Math lesson components are especially useful for supporting productive struggle.

A Story of Units® (Grades K–5)

A Story of Ratios® and A Story of Functions® (Grades 6–12)

Sprints are quick, timed activities designed to develop fluency. The difficulty of the problems increases throughout the Sprint, from simple to more complex. Students typically reach their own productive struggle levels at the end of a Sprint.

Exploration lessons are specifically designed to help students reach conclusions on their own through a series of guided questions. Students are encouraged to share their reasoning and discover diverse ways of thinking through conversations with other students.

Application Problems require students to apply learning in a new context. Students use previous experiences with similar problems to determine a solution method for a novel problem.

Modeling Cycle lessons link classroom mathematics to everyday life, work, and decision-making. These lessons, encourage students to be creative in finding new ways to apply prior learning in unfamiliar situations. The creative process of applying the mathematics is a kind of productive struggle.

The Student Debrief is an opportunity to develop productive struggle through conversation as a routine part of your classroom culture. In the Debrief, students discuss their thinking, the successful and unsuccessful strategies they employed, and what they learned from their efforts.

Socratic lessons contain sample dialogue between the teacher and the students. The dialogue includes questions that challenge students’ thinking, such as What would happen if you changed something in the problem? What other strategies can you use to reach the same conclusion? How would you defend your answer if someone challenged it?


Maintain productive struggle.

The most effective way to support productive struggle, as simple as it may sound, is to let students struggle. Let them know that it’s okay if they don’t immediately know how to find the answer. This table shows a list of Dos and Don’ts for encouraging productive struggle.



Give your students time to engage in productive struggle. You know your students, and you prepared your lesson to meet their needs. Trust that they can accomplish what you prepared for them.

Don’t provide support too quickly. You will likely undermine your preparation and your students’ abilities to persevere.

Ask questions when students are stuck: What have you done before that might be useful now? What seems important in the problem? How is this the same or different as what you’ve seen before?

Don’t offer to get students started or tell them how to move to the next step. Students need to stretch their thinking to learn. When you provide too much information, you take away the struggle.

Encourage students to solve problems in different ways. Students need to feel comfortable trying different strategies. Celebrate creativity by encouraging students to share their thinking with the class.

Don’t suggest only one solution path. Students may initially be unable to get started out of fear of not knowing the correct first step or the “right way” to solve a problem. Students are more likely to succeed if they choose a strategy that feels natural to them.

Praise students’ effort on both successful and unsuccessful attempts. These actions send the message to students that you value risk-taking and trying out ideas. Math is not just about getting the right answer.

Have students reflect on what they learned from their unsuccessful efforts and how those efforts helped them decide what method(s) to try next.

Don’t focus your praise on correct answers. Focus it on the behaviors and strategies that lead to understanding.


Avoid Unproductive Struggle

Not all struggle is productive. Unproductive struggle happens when either the concepts are out of reach and overwhelming or the struggle is not related to the task at hand. For example, imagine you are trying to ride a new bike. If the seat is too high for you to reach the pedals, you won’t succeed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to ride a bike. When the seat has been lowered, you’ll learn to ride just fine.

In the classroom, if your students are unable to cut out shapes for a sort, it doesn’t mean they can’t work on classifying quadrilaterals. They just need the shapes cut out for them. If your students have difficulty reading a word problem independently, read it aloud for them. Help students focus on mathematical thinking by removing unrelated frustration points.

Struggle is a good thing in math class—when it’s productive. Encourage students’ efforts to work through tough challenges, and you’ll see them learn. Productive struggle leads students to aha moments that inspire them forward on their mathematics journey.

Topics: Implementation Support