frustrated student with head in arms
Inside the Classroom

Online Learning and the Productive Struggle

Now that most learning has moved online, students (and parents) are realizing that the flexibility of distance learning also creates unique challenges. Some of these challenges can be beneficial for students, like their being able to still work in rigorous virtual courses that interest them and are just the right level of difficult. In fact, when students participate in online learning for the first time, some of them actually struggle due to the rigor. Maintaining that rigor and only moving students forward as they become proficient can be beneficial for students, as it forces them to persevere and work through the struggle. And fortunately, productive struggles can be supported by various methods of scaffolding and support, both of which can be found in online courses.

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Incorporating the Productive Struggle into Instruction

Finding the right level of challenge for a class full of students can be difficult, especially when they lack interest in the material or motivation. That’s exactly the reason to incorporate a productive struggle into your instruction—if students know that challenging work has value, and that everything they learn is connected in some way, it can help motivate them to work through the challenge.

The productive struggle focuses on guiding the educational needs of students based on culture, society, and forward progress for the individual student. Teachers can implement the productive struggle into their classroom with additional instructional support to enrich and challenge student learning and success. Support can come in the form of content-rich materials that correspond to the learning objectives and course standards with scaffolding to bring the student closer to proficiency in a given area. Examples of such guided supports include video tutorials, additional or guided notes, interactive activities, journal articles, and visuals to complement student learning and success.

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Making It Just Challenging Enough

Blind spots in instruction can occur when the teacher knows the topic too well and does not provide enough information to students for them to understand and learn the material. An article in Teaching and Teacher Education states that shortcomings, or expert blind spots, can result from the instructor’s failure to understand how our audience learns. It is important, then, that educators understand how to effectively share knowledge and resources that can aid in learning, especially when using struggle as a learning tool. According to a 2012 article in The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, the audience needs both a summary of the presentation and to know where to go with questions that may come up in the future. When delivering instruction visually, make sure to use a few brief sentences in relatively large font, as well as links and meaningful images and graphs to help visual learners. Blind spots can also be avoided by incorporating formative assessment and then changing the lesson delivery based on those results, all the while maintaining rigor.

To expose students to appropriate rigor with scaffolding, teachers can utilize pretesting to not only narrow students’ and their focus on needed areas, but also to enhance areas of proficiency beyond the next level by providing enrichment tools, resources, and interactive activities.


Danielson, C. (2002). Enhancing student achievement: A framework for school improvement. ASCD.

Paulin, D., Suneson, K. (2012). Knowledge transfer, knowledge sharing and knowledge barriers—Three blurry terms in KM. The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, 10(1): 81–91.

Shapira-Lishchinsky, O. (2011, April). Teachers’ critical incidents: Ethical dilemmas in teaching practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(3): 648–656.

About the Author


Michelle Mittler

Michelle has professional experience in research and development, pharmaceuticals, engineering, healthcare, education, and consulting. She participates in various organizations including the American Chemical Society, American Statistical Society, Scientists without Borders, Kappa Delta Pi, and the International Society of Infectious Diseases. She is an avid reader and coffee consumer, and enjoys going for walks, kickboxing, water sports, and rock climbing. She is passionate about education and was inspired to join the field to have the opportunity to promote a positive impact on future generations.