How to Tell When Learning Struggles Are Productive or Destructive


In their book How to Support Struggling Students, Robyn Jackson and Claire Lambert identify clues that mark the distinction between destructive and productive struggles in learning:

A destructive struggle A productive struggle
  • Leads to frustration.                                    
  • Leads to understanding.
  • Makes learning goals feel hazy
    and out of reach.
  • Makes learning goals feel attainable
    and effort seem worthwhile.
  • Feels fruitless.
  • Yields results.
  • Leaves students feeling abandoned
    and on their own.
  • Leads students to feelings of empowerment
    and efficacy.
  • Creates a sense of inadequacy.
  • Creates a sense of hope.


A destructive struggle needs immediate intervention, which requires that that teachers have a plan to address it. Plus, teachers have to understand why the student is struggling with completing a task or understanding a concept. For example, to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion, a student with poor reading or note-taking skills may have difficulty making sense of information from a textbook. Another student, on the other hand, may have difficulty grasping abstract concepts like force, mass, weight, and acceleration, which would require a different intervention. A third student might fall behind in the same unit simply because he lacks time-management skills.

“In a destructive struggle, kids have run out of strategies; they give up; they put their heads down; they get frustrated or angry,” Jackson explains. Sometimes, such students have relied too much on the teacher’s help, so when the teacher is not around, they don’t know what to do, Jackson says.

In a productive struggle, on the other hand, students grapple with the issues and are able to come up with a solution themselves, developing persistence and resilience in pursuing and attaining the learning goal or understanding, says Jackson. In productive struggles, kids have developed the necessary strategies for working through something difficult. They can also take a teacher’s suggestions for help and run with them.

How can you tell if a student’s learning struggles are productive or destructive?